North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has offered to consider suspending nuclear arms testing and production in his reclusive state if there is a resumption of six-nation aid-for-disarmament talks.
He gave the assurance during a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday, Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said.
"Kim Jong Il expressed readiness to return to six-party talks without preconditions," Timakova said after Medvedev met Kim at a military base near Lake Baikal in Siberia, Reuters news agency reported.
"In the course of the talks the North Koreans will be ready to resolve the issue of imposing a moratorium on testing and production of missile and nuclear weaponry."
The United States said however that the North Korean offer would be insufficient.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington that Kim's offer was "insufficient" to warrant a resumption of the nuclear talks.
"If it's true, a welcome first step, but far from enough," she said. "We will not go back to six-party talks until North Koreans are prepared to meet all of the commitments that we've all laid out."
South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted an unnamed official in Seoul as saying the Russia-North Korea summit results fell short of the expectations of South Korea, the United States, and Japan.
The official raised the need for the North to address its uranium enrichment program.
North Korea's disclosure last November of uranium enrichment facilities "remains a matter of serious concern" to Washington, because such activities violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, Agence France-Presse quoted Nuland as saying.
She said the United States would be in contact with Russia after Kim's visit to Russia ends.
Skepticism over promise
Aside from North Korea, Russia, and the United States, the six-party talks involve China, South Korea, and Japan.
Pyongyang pulled out of the talks in 2009 after the international community condemned a failed North Korean satellite launch and expanded economic sanctions against the nation for violating a U.N. Security Council Resolution.
Experts are skeptical that Pyongyang would be willing to fully abandon its nuclear weapons program, which it sees as a powerful tool of leverage in negotiations, and are quick to point out previous instances of broken promises related to its arsenal.
In back-to-back moves in July, officials and ministers of North and South Korea held surprise meetings, agreeing to work towards resumption of six-party talks, marking the first high-level contact since 2008 between the two neighboring arch-rivals.
Soon after, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kae Gwan went to New York for discussions with U.S. officials on the next steps needed to restart the protracted denuclearization talks.
Moscow and Beijing have called for a quick return to talks.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last month that North Korea must take steps to improve relations with South Korea. Washington as well as South Korea and Japan have also said that Pyongyang must "address" its secretive uranium enrichment program.
The meeting with Medvedev in Sosnovy Bor came a day after Kim’s arrival in nearby Ulan-Ude via a personal armored train, in which the estranged leader prefers to travel because of a fear of air travel.
During the Russian visit, which last came nine years ago, Kim also supported a planned pipeline to carry Russian gas supplies to South Korea through the North, Medvedev said, according to Agence France-Presse.
He said the proposed pipeline would stretch more than 1,700 km (1,000 miles).
The deal would concern "the transit of gas across the territory of North Korea and accordingly the addition to this project of the Republic of Korea, considering that the main consumers are on its territory," Medvedev said.
The president said a commission was being formed to develop the proposal and added that a South Korean delegation had recently visited the Russian natural gas company Gazprom.
It remains unclear how interested energy-starved South Korea, which has had several tense standoffs with its northern neighbor since the two nations agreed to an armistice ending the Korean War in 1953, would be in allowing Pyongyang to control the tap on such a vital source of power.
The construction of the gas pipeline will guarantee the restoration and strengthening of trust between Seoul and Pyongyang, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua quoted Georgy Toloraya, a senior researcher at Russia's Institute of World Economy and International Relations, as saying.
Moscow’s influence in Pyongyang has dropped off noticeably since the collapse of the Soviet Union, while Beijing’s has grown significantly. Kim has visited China three times in the last two years.
Russia announced last week that it would send 50,000 tons of grain to North Korea by the end of next month to help the country deal with a “severe deficit” of food.
Recent flooding and years of economic sanctions have forced North Korea to seek aid from its allies to feed its malnourished population.
Critics in South Korea argue that Pyongyang may be overstating its shortages in order to supply the upcoming 100th anniversary celebration of founding father Kim Il Sung’s birthday next year.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.