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Russia's Lavrov to visit North Korea this week


MOSCOW, April 21 (RIA Novosti) - Russia's foreign minister is to visit North Korea on Thursday for talks likely to focus on tensions over the North's recent rocket launch and its withdrawal from nuclear negotiations.

Sergei Lavrov will arrive in Pyongyang on April 23, and will then visit South Korea on April 24-25, the Foreign Ministry's press service said on Tuesday.

The ministry did not give details on the planned meetings, or confirm media reports that Lavrov would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

The talks in Pyongyang and Seoul will address "the situation on the Korean peninsula and in the East Asian region, and key international issues of mutual interest," the statement said.

North Korea withdrew from the six-nation talks on its nuclear program in protest against criticism from the United Nations Security Council over its rocket launch on April 5. Russia, a party to the talks along with the United States, China, Japan, and the two Koreas, joined international criticism of the rocket launch, while opposing new sanctions against the North.

The visit comes at a tense time in relations between the two Koreas, over the rocket launch and the arrest of a South Korean at the Kaesong industrial complex.

Earlier on Monday, delegations from the two countries had been set to hold talks in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, the site of an industrial estate that has been a focus of international economic cooperation in recent years. However, the Yonhap news agency quoted sources as saying the meeting had been put off due to procedural disputes.

North Korean police arrested a South Korean worker at the plant a month ago, for allegedly making critical comments about Pyongyang's regime, and encouraging a North Korean woman to defect.

North Korea has reacted furiously to suggestions that Seoul could join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a U.S.-led pact to prevent supplies of weapons of mass destruction, and has warned that it would consider such a move a declaration of war.

Last week, North Korea ordered UN nuclear inspectors out of the country in protest against criticism of its rocket launch, and pledged to restart work at its Yongbyon reactor.

The inspectors had been overseeing the deconstruction of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, in line with a February 2007 deal between the six countries involved in talks on the North Korean nuclear problem.

The UN Security Council said the North's rocket launch contravened a UN resolution passed in late 2006 after Pyongyang's nuclear test, banning nuclear and ballistic activities.

Many countries suspect that North Korea's rocket launch was a test of a long-range missile. North Korea claimed the rocket, which was launched over Japan, successfully delivered a communications satellite into orbit, but the U.S. and South Korean militaries said all three stages fell into the ocean and that "no object entered orbit."

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