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N.K. leader arrives in Ulan-Ude for summit with Medvedev

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il arrived in the eastern Siberian city of Ulan-Ude Tuesday ahead of his summit talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The meeting planned for Wednesday comes as North Korea is struggling to improve its faltering economy after years of international sanctions imposed over its two nuclear tests.

The North has expressed its interest in rejoining long-stalled talks on ending its nuclear programs. Last month, its diplomats met with their U.S. counterparts in New York on how to resume the talks that also involve South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

Kim crossed the border on Saturday for his first trip to Russia since 2002. On Tuesday morning, Kim arrived in Ulan-Ude by his special train, a typical means of transportation for the 69-year-old leader rumored to be acrophobic.

He then headed by his Mercedes for an undisclosed destination, though a foreign news outlet reported that Kim toured a village on the shores of Lake Baikal, citing an unidentified local official.

Kim's summit talks with Medvedev are expected to focus on, among other things, the North's nuclear weapons program and cooperation in the energy and transport sectors.

Russia has been involved in talks to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program for years, and has rich natural gas and other resources that Moscow could use to counterbalance China's growing influence in North Korea.

The bilateral relations between North Korea and Russia cooled following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North's main benefactor, two decades ago.

North Korea has since relied heavily on China for trade, aid and diplomatic support amid the international sanctions. Kim visited China in May, his third trip to the North's most important ally in just over a year.

In a sign of interest in energy cooperation with Russia, Kim visited Bureiskaya hydroelectric plant in eastern Siberia's Amur region before reaching Ulan-Ude.

For years, Russia has floated the idea of transmitting surplus electricity produced by the power station to the Korean Peninsula.

It has also proposed building a pipeline through the divided Korean Peninsula to sell Siberian natural gas to South Korea, one of the world's largest buyers of natural gas.

Last month, a delegation of the Russian gas firm Gazprom visited North Korea. The North has reacted "positively" to the natural-gas pipeline construction project, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his South Korean counterpart in Moscow earlier this month.

If realized, the project could help ease tensions on the peninsula and bring much-needed hard currency to North Korea. North Korea could expect to earn more than $500 million a year in handling charges over the gas pipeline, according to South Korean analysts.

Kim's trip to Russia comes as the North is struggling to build a prosperous and powerful nation next year, the centennial of the birth of the country's late founder and president, Kim Il-sung, the father of current leader Kim Jong-il.

Still, doubts linger about whether the North can make any economic breakthrough by next year, especially given its appeal for food aid in recent months to help feed its people.

The North's recent devastating floods could further worsen the already fragile food situation in a country that has relied on foreign handouts since the late 1990s.

Last week, Russia announced 50,000 tons of food aid for North Korea, according to the North's state media. (Yonhap News)

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