- Associated Press - Monday, August 22, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong-il continued a rare trip to Russia on Monday, traveling in his private armored train through the country’s resource-rich far east ahead of a summit with President Dmitry Medvedev expected to focus on energy cooperation and nuclear disarmament.

Mr. Kim‘s visit began Saturday at the invitation of Mr. Medvedev. The two leaders are to meet later this week to discuss the possible relay of Russian natural gas and other energy to North and South Korea and long-stalled negotiations on ending the North’s nuclear ambitions in return for aid.

Flags of the two countries fluttered at railway stations where Mr. Kim stopped, North Korean state media said, with military bands playing welcoming music and Russian women in national dress offering Mr. Kim traditional gifts of bread and salt.

On Sunday, Mr. Kim’s train rumbled through Amur province in Russia’s far east, where he toured a hydroelectric power plant and its 456-foot dam on the Bureya River.

Mr. Kim was briefed on the plant’s history and electricity production capacity and praised the enormous building, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported from Pyongyang.

“Inexhaustible is the strength of the Russian people,” Mr. Kim wrote in the visitors book, KCNA said.

Russia has proposed transmitting surplus electricity produced by the Amur plant to both North and South Korea, South Korean media reported Monday.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, while on a visit to Mongolia, said Monday that “if (Kim) frequently visits and looks at an open society, that will eventually positively affect North Korea’s economic development,” spokesman Park Jeong-ha said, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

A regional news agency, PortAmur, posted some of the only photographs of Mr. Kim‘s visit, showing the 69-year-old leader wearing his trademark Mao-style khaki jumpsuit. In all but one of the photographs he is seen wearing dark sunglasses. He traded them for regular eyeglasses when presented with a framed picture as a gift.

Mr. Kim left Amur for his next destination Sunday, but North Korea didn’t say exactly where his train was heading. Yonhap, however, citing an unidentified Russian intelligence source, reported Monday that Mr. Kim‘s train could be heading toward the city of Skovorodino. It may stop there before reaching Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, a Buddhist province near Lake Baikal, for a summit with Mr. Medvedev.

Yonhap said Skovorodino is the starting point for a newly built 620-mile oil pipeline linking eastern Siberia and China. It said Mr. Kim’s expected stop at Skovorodino could be related to Russia’s proposal to provide energy to the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean media are speculating that the Kim-Medvedev summit could take place Tuesday or Wednesday. A key topic could be the construction of a pipeline that would stream Russian natural gas to both Koreas.

Russian and South Korean officials want North Korea to allow them to construct such a pipeline through the North’s territory so that Russia could sell more natural gas to the South at a cheaper price. South Korea media said the North could earn up to $100 million every year, but negotiations haven’t reported much progress because of the nuclear dispute.

Officials from Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled natural gas giant, visited the North in early July for talks on the gas pipeline. North Korean officials at the time positively reacted to the project, a change from a previous reluctant position, according to South Korea’s Foreign Ministry.

The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, however, raised worries Monday that the North could abruptly shut down gas supply, depending on relations with the South.

“As long as there is the possibility that the gas supply would be interrupted by the North for political or military reasons, it is difficult for Seoul to put a final stamp on the deal,” the paper said in an editorial.

Mr. Kim‘s visit to Russia comes amid signs that North Korea is increasing efforts to secure aid and restart six-nation nuclear talks after more than a year of tension, during which the North shelled a South Korean border island and allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship. A total of 50 South Koreans died in the attacks.

North Korean diplomats separately met U.S. and South Korean officials last month to discuss the resumption of the nuclear talks, which have been stalled more than two years.

Russia announced Friday that it was providing food assistance, including some 50,000 tons of wheat, to the North, which might face another food crisis this year because of heavy rains.

Mr. Kim traveled to China in May in a trip seen by many as an attempt to secure aid, investment and support for a transfer of power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. It was Mr. Kim‘s third visit to his country’s closest ally in just over a year.

Mr. Kim last visited Russia in 2002, a four-day trip limited to the Far East. A year earlier, however, he made a 24-day train trek across the country to Moscow and back.

Hyung-jin Kim reported from Seoul.