Russia opens efforts to get NKorea back into talks

Russia launched a mission Thursday to try to get North Korea back into international disarmament talks, sending its top diplomat to Pyongyang after the North announced it would restart its nuclear program, AP reported.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in North Korea for a two-day visit, North's Korean Central News Agency reported in a brief dispatch. The ITAR-Tass news agency said the nuclear standoff was expected to dominate Lavrov's trip, and that he may meet later Thursday with leader Kim Jong Il.

North Korea last week expelled all international monitors of its plutonium-producing facilities, vowed to restart them and quit six-nation disarmament talks, after the U.N. Security Council condemned its April 5 rocket launch and called for expanded sanctions.

Pyongyang says the rebuke is unfair because the liftoff was a peaceful satellite launch. But the U.S. and others believe it was a test of long-range missile technology.

Lavrov is expected to focus on trying to persuade the North to return to the nuclear negotiating table. South Korean and Russian media reports said he could meet with the North's reclusive leader and deliver a letter from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said earlier this week that the North could restart its nuclear facilities within months - a move that could lead to production of weapons-grade plutonium.

North Korea's relations are not as close with Russia as they were during Soviet times, but the two sides maintain cordial ties. Moscow is a member of the six-party nuclear talks and usually avoids openly criticizing Pyongyang.

"A threat of sanctions to North Korea is counterproductive," ITAR-Tass quoted Lavrov as saying, without specifying the time or place of his comments.

He also said all the parties in the nuclear talks should stick to their obligations. "There are commitments taken by North Korea and there are commitments taken by the other participants in the six-way talks," Lavrov said, according to ITAR-Tass.

Under a 2007 six-party deal, North Korea agreed to disable its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon north of Pyongyang in return for 1 million tons of fuel oil and other concessions. In June 2008, North Korea blew up the cooling tower there in a dramatic show of its commitment to denuclearization.

But disablement came to halt a month later as Pyongyang wrangled with Washington over how to verify its past atomic activities. The latest round of talks, in December, failed to push the process forward.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the U.S. is working on trying to get Pyongyang's decision reversed.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a House hearing that Washington is ready to resume the nuclear talks and that she thinks the "strong support that we see among the parties against what North Korea is doing will eventually yield fruit."

"We have to be strong, patient, persistent, and not give in to the kind of back-and-forth ... the unpredictable behavior of the North Korean regime," Clinton said.

Lavrov also plans to visit South Korea on Friday after the North Korean trip.

Tensions on the divided peninsula have also been running high. The two sides held their first official dialogue Tuesday since Seoul's conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office last year, but the meeting ended without progress.

North Korea rejected the South's request for the release of a Seoul worker being held at a joint industrial zone in Kaesong, just north of the border, for allegedly denouncing Pyongyang's political system. The North also demanded the South pay more to use the factory park.

Relations between the two Koreas have frayed badly as North Korea has denounced the South Korean government's tougher stance. It cut off reconciliation talks and suspended key joint projects, leaving the industrial zone as the only major remaining project.

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