Russia launches 'year of friendship' with North Korea

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia on Wednesday said it was kicking off a "year of friendship" with totalitarian North Korea as ties with the West languish over Ukraine.

The foreign ministry in Moscow announced it had agreed to start a programme of cultural exchanges with the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang aimed at taking ties between the one-time Cold War allies to a "new high level".

The events - to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in May - come as Moscow seeks to offset its slump in relations with the West over Russia's support for separatists in Ukraine.

The Kremlin has already said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un will be coming to Moscow in May to take part in commemorations of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

The trip would be Kim's first trip abroad since he took over after the death of his father Kim Jong-Il in 2011, with the reclusive state possibly looking to reduce its dependance on its main diplomatic and economic buttress China.

Moscow has tried to bolster its relations with a range of partners from Beijing to Caracas in the face of its own economic woes sparked by Western sanctions over Ukraine and tumbling oil prices.

The late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il visited Russia in August 2011 in his armoured train for a meeting with then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.

Russia is seeking to expand economic ties with North Korea and is eyeing a project worth about US$25 billion (S$27 billion) to overhaul the country's railway network in return for access to mineral resources.

Russia is also one of the key members of long-stalled six-party negotiations with North Korea over ending its nuclear arms programme.

On Wednesday, the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would not attend a May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow.