Zhirinovsky plays to gallery in Pyongyang

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AFTER hurling flower pots in Strasbourg, groping naked Slovenes in a Balkan sauna and sending misfits in sunglasses to support President Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Zhirinovsky yesterday took his rollicking Russian roadshow to the one foreign land perhaps capable of matching his bizarre antics.

Bounced from much of Europe for his behaviour, the ultra-nationalist leader arrived at the head of a 40- strong delegation in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea's self-declared 'paradise on earth' and bastion of unreconstructed Stalinism.

Though notorious as a belligerent xenophobe at home, Mr Zhirinovsky has metamorphosed into a devoted disciple of North Korea's ruling dynasty: 'We have deeply studied works of respected comrade Kim Il Sung and comrade Kim Jong Il from long ago,' KCNA, the official news agency, quoted him as saying.

North Korea is about the only country on Russia's perimeter against which Mr Zhirinovsky has no territorial claim and which he has not threatened to pulverise with nuclear bombs. He was described as having friendly talks with officials from the Korean Workers' Party on 'issues of mutual concern'.

The trip is the first by such a flamboyant foreign figure since the death in July of Kim Il Sung, an event which - also according to KCNA - caused birds to weep and other unprecedented outpourings of grief.

Mr Zhirinovsky's freelance diplomacy has gone down badly with Russian diplomats, who have tried in recent months to improve frosty relations with Pyongyang. 'This has absolutely nothing to do with us,' sniffed Valentin Moiseev, the Russian Foreign Ministry official responsible for North Korea.

Itar-Tass reported Mr Zhi rinovsky flew into Pyongyang on a chartered plane adorned with a hawk, the emblem of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The agency's Pyongyang correspondent, Alexander Valiev, predicted more sobriety than on Mr Zhirinov sky's previous foreign jaunts, which have often ended in brawling or expulsion: 'I don't think there will be any trouble. And even if there is we won't know about it.' The Russian delegation is staying at a state villa off limits to all visitors, including Russian journalists.

Mr Zhirinovsky, who speaks Turkish as well as broken English and French, takes pride in his knowledge of foreign affairs, wants to be foreign minister and larded his autobiography, The Last Thrust South, with dollops of geopolitical gobbledegook. Aside from a shared zaniness, his LDP and the Korean Workers' Party are drawn together by a shared contempt for the United States and a mistrust of Japan.

Russia has tilted sharply away from Pyongyang in recent years towards South Korea, the country it helped Kim Il Sung try to annihilate during the Korean War but with which it established diplomatic relations in 1990. As part of a global attempt to halt what is now seen as an over- hasty diplomatic retreat, however, Russia wants better ties with Pyongyang too.

Vadim Tkachenko, a Korean affairs expert at Moscow's Far East Institute, said North Korea had probably invited Mr Zhirinovsky to put pressure on Moscow.