North Korean negotiator heads to Russia on 'charm offensive'

SEOUL (AFP) - A high-ranking North Korean official with long experience in nuclear talks left on Tuesday for Russia, state media said, as the communist state steps up a diplomatic offensive after months of tension.

First vice foreign minister Kim Kye Gwan was leading a delegation en route to the Russian capital, the official Korean Central News Agency said in a brief report.

A weekend report from Russia's RIA Novosti news agency said Mr Kim would discuss a possible resumption of talks about ending the North's nuclear programme.

In Moscow, Mr Kim will meet Russia's First Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov and Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, it said.

The trip comes as North Korea reaches out internationally after months of high tension triggered by its third nuclear test in February.

Mr Kim was a key figure in earlier six-party talks aimed at persuading his country to abandon its atomic weapons programme in exchange for aid and security guarantees.

The talks began in August 2003 but have not been held since December 2008.

They also include Russia, the United States, China, South Korea and Japan.

North Korea has vowed never to give up its nuclear weapons, but says it is open to direct talks with the United States. Mr Kim late last month discussed restarting the six-party talks in Beijing, where he met China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

The North's apparent new interest in dialogue after months of warlike rhetoric has been greeted cautiously by some analysts.

"North Korea has clarified its stance that its nuclear weapons are not up for negotiation and it now wants the world to accept it as a nuclear state," said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

"Behind North Korea's latest initiative is its real aim to circumvent Seoul and open direct disarmament talks with Washington."

After a proposed fence-mending meeting with Seoul failed to go ahead last month, Pyongyang proposed direct, high-level talks with Washington.

Washington responded by insisting that Pyongyang first demonstrate its willingness to abandon its nuclear programme.

South Korea is equally sceptical and dismisses Pyongyang's talks offer as a strategy to divide Seoul and Washington.

"North Korea suddenly started a charm offensive. (South Korea) has always been open to a dialogue, but it will not have dialogue for the sake of dialogue itself," South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se told an Asia-Pacific meeting in Brunei.

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