An Inquisitive Kim Nears Omsk

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Trundling across Siberia on a rare foreign journey, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has showered his hosts with questions about Russian politics, economics and the forested landscape outside his window, an official said Monday.

Kim has also demonstrated a knowledge of English during informal encounters on the tightly guarded trip, said Igor Kolomeitsev, spokesman for the Russian delegation on the train.

"The Korean guest has many questions about what he sees out the window, about politics, the economy, what he has heard about Russia, what he has read," Kolomeitsev said by telephone. He spoke as the train pulled into Krasnoyarsk for a brief maintenance stop Monday.

Kim's trip along the famed Trans-Siberian Railway — only his third known foreign visit as leader of North Korea — has been cloaked in secrecy. His private train is surrounded by rifle-toting Russian security agents whenever it stops.

Kim, who is believed to dislike flying, arrived in the Far East last Thursday and is scheduled to meet President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Aug. 4-5.

The two leaders are likely to discuss settlement of the conflict between the two Koreas, construction of a gas pipeline from Russia to the Korean peninsula and railroad cooperation, Putin aide Sergei Prikhodko was quoted by Interfax as saying Monday.

Prikhodko said Putin and Kim may talk about "North Korean military programs that trouble us, the Americans and the world community." But if the topic arises, he said, "Russia will not demand that North Korea stop work on these programs. They should be given an alternative."

Russian officials have played down U.S. concerns that North Korea poses a potential nuclear threat.

Konstantin Pulikovsky, the head of the Russian delegation aboard Kim's train and Kremlin envoy to the Far East Federal District, has met daily with the North Korean leader, Kolomeitsev said. Talks are held in Russian through a North Korean interpreter, except for a few informal moments in English, he said. "The mood is serious sometimes, sometimes light. No one seems weary yet," Kolomeitsev said.

On Tuesday morning Kim is to stop briefly in Novosibirsk. Itar-Tass said he would meet with the widow and children of a Soviet officer who reportedly once saved the life of Kim's father, longtime North Korean leader Kim il-Sung.

Kim Jong-il is to arrive Tuesday evening in Omsk, where he is to take a day out of his journey to visit a tank firing range and a pig farm, and see a cultural performance, the regional government press service said. Kim was expected to spend Tuesday night on the stationary train, Kolomeitsev said.