Kim Jong-il, who arrived in Russia by train, is likely to ask for economic aid for his impoverished nation [Reuters]

Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are holding talks in Siberia that are expected to focus on Pyongyang's nuclear programme and economic co-operation.

The meeting opened at a military base outside the city of Ulan-Ude, about 5,550km east of Moscow where Medvedev had flown earlier on Wednesday.

"Thank you that you flew here," Kim told Medvedev as the talks began.

Medvedev replied: "This is all our country and when we are talking about neighbours, our partners, distance is not a question."

Kim, who is afraid of flying, arrived in Ulan-Ude aboard his armoured train a day earlier after a week-long Trans-Siberian journey across the Russian Far East.

Six-party talks

The talks follow discussions between Pyongyang and Washington last month on the resumption of six-nation talks designed to provide North Korea with economic aid as an incentive for giving up its nuclear weapons programme.

Kim Jong-il holds talks with Russian president

The Kremlin said North Korea had announced its readiness to return to the nuclear talks with South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the US, more than two years after they broke up.

"Much attention will be paid to the topic of an early resumption of six-party talks to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula," the Kremlin said in a statement.

The North Korean leader's first visit to Russia since 2002, tops a relative flurry of diplomacy for the reclusive leader, who has visited China, now his country's closest partner, three times in less than two years.

Russia and China have backed the immediate resumption of the aid-for-disarmament talks and Kim may ask Russia to exert more pressure on South Korea, the US and Japan to restart the negotiations.

Economic and food aid

Kim is also expected to appeal for economic aid for his impoverished country, whose economy has been hit by floods as well as international sanctions imposed over its nuclear programme.

Moscow said on the eve of Kim's arrival that it was sending up to 50,000 tonnes of wheat to North Korea.

Kim and Medvedev will also discuss energy and infrastructure projects involving both Koreas.

They include a long-stalled plan for a trans-Korean railroad, the construction of an electricity transmission line between the two countries and, most importantly, a pipeline carrying Russian gas to South Korea via the North.

However, the gas pipeline is unlikely to go far without a significant thaw between the two Koreas, which are technically still at war.

The Korean peninsula has seen more than a year of tension during which the North shelled a South Korean island and allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship.

Source: Agencies