North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il arrived in Russia today for his first visit in nearly a decade, reaching out to the giant neighbour as Pyongyang battles isolation and hunger.
The reclusive Kim travelled in his armored train, crossing Russia’s Far Eastern border in the early hours and was due to hold talks with President Dmitry Medvedev later this week.
During the rare, secrecy-shrouded visit, his first since 2002, the 69-year-old Kim is expected to tour Russia’s Far East and Siberia for about a week.
Kim, known to dislike air travel for security reasons, crossed the Tumangan river into Russia earlier today.
Russian television showed the bespectacled leader in his trademark military-style suit managing a half-smile and waving at the Russian officials who lined up at the railway station for a welcome ceremony under clear sunny skies.
Talks with Medvedev are expected to focus on North Korea’s nuclear program, energy and other projects and worsening food shortages in Kim’s isolated state.
His arrival comes a day after the Russian foreign ministry said Moscow was sending up to 50,000 tonnes of wheat to help North Korea cope with an “acute shortage of food supplies.”
The visit comes at a sensitive time for the two countries. Russia is heading into crucial presidential polls in 2012, in which the big unknown is whether it will be Putin or Medvedev who will run.
North Korea’s food crisis, meanwhile, has put hundreds of thousands of people at risk in the Stalinist state.
The situation has become so dire that an increasing number of North Koreans have resorted to eating grass, the European Commission has said.
A professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, Yang Moo-Jin, said Kim’s visit was aimed at obtaining more food aid and economic assistance from Russia.