NKorea sends top diplomat to Russia amid tensions

North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun left for Russia, the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported in a one-sentence report. No details were given, but yesterday Pak accused South Korea and the US of pursuing a policy of hostility and confrontation and reiterating that Pyongyang needs its nuclear programme to fend them off.

"We once again feel convinced that we have made the right choice in strengthening our defenses with the nuclear deterrent," he said, according to an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax.

The trip comes two days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met in Pyongyang with Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo, Beijing's top foreign policy official. The two reached consensus on the situation on the Korean peninsula during candid and in-depth talks, China's official Xinhua News Agency has said, without elaborating.

It was not clear whether the two discussed the North's November 23 artillery attack on a South Korean island near the Koreas' disputed western sea border. The barrage killed four South Koreans, including two civilians.

China has been under intense international pressure to use its diplomatic clout to rein in its ally North Korea. Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov Bill Richardson will visit North Korea next week, raising the prospect of a diplomatic resolution to the tensions. He is to depart from the US on Tuesday.

The diplomatic troubleshooter has made regular visits to North Korea and has also hosted North Korean officials in New Mexico. He helped win the release of Americans held in North Korea in the 1990s and travelled to Pyongyang in 2007 to recover remains of US servicemen killed in the Korean War.

The flurry of diplomacy comes as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak expressed optimism during this week's trip to Malaysia that the reunification of Korea is drawing near.

"North Korea now remains one of the most belligerent nations in the world," Lee said in the interview published in The Star, a Malaysian newspaper yesterday. But, he added, it's a "fact that the two Koreas will have to coexist peacefully and, in the end, realise reunification."

In a speech on Thursday night, Lee made similar remarks, saying that North Koreans have become increasingly aware that the South is better off. He did not elaborate on how their knowledge has expanded, but he said it was "an important change that no one can stop."

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