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Putin, Kim urge U.S. to drop defense plan

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SEOUL, South Korea — The leaders of Russia and North Korea on Thursday urged the United States to scrap its proposed anti-missile shields, saying the North's missile program is meant for peaceful purposes, official media reported.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded his first-ever visit to North Korea and meetings with Kim Jong Il on Thursday, the North's news agency released a Kim-Putin statement that promised close relations between the two countries. The statement also focused on the missile issue.

North Korea "stated that its missile program does not pose any threat to anybody but is purely peaceful in its nature," said the statement, carried in its entirety by the official Korean Central News Agency.

The statement came a day after Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying North Korea is prepared to abandon its missile program if other nations offer it rocket boosters so it can launch satellites "for peaceful space research." Some analysts said that appeared to be an effort to invalidate the rationale behind the U.S. missile shield.

But analysts said they did not take the statement to mean North Korea would abandon its entire missile program: Missile exports have been a significant foreign-currency earner for the North. The joint statement and Putin comments later Thursday did not mention anything about the offer.

Putin left North Korea on Thursday for a visit to Russia's Far East, where he said in Blagoveshchensk that he had "formed a good impression" about Kim Jong Il.

"I discovered that the leader of North Korea is an absolutely modern man, who objectively assesses the situation in the world," Putin said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

"I must say that if one shows an understanding for the interests of his state, the worries about its defense capabilities ... discussions are possible on any topic."

The comments were the latest chapter in an ongoing war of words between Russia and the United States over the proposed missile defense system.

U.S. officials have said the system would protect against threats from smaller nations such as North Korea: One of the shields would protect the entire United States, and the White House is considering one that could include parts of Asia. Putin has denounced the idea both in North Korea and at an earlier summit in China, saying the shield is unnecessary and could spark a new arms race.

Nearly two years ago, the North shocked East Asia by test-firing a long-range missile that flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific. It is believed to have missiles that can reach Hawaii and Alaska, and the CIA says it has the potential to develop missiles that could reach the continental United States.

North Korea has refused to stop developing missiles for self-defense. During recent U.S.-North Korea talks in Malaysia, Pyongyang demanded $1 billion a year for three years from Washington in exchange for a halt to missile technology exports. The United States refused.

In Washington, U.S. officials said they were not certain how to interpret Putin's remarks Wednesday.

A senior U.S. official told The Associated Press that if Putin was talking about a partnership with other countries to provide North Korea with the capability of launching satellites from boosters in Kazakstan or some other country, it would be worth exploring. But if Putin had in mind providing technology or other hardware to an existing missile program, that would aggravate the threat the North poses, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

South Korean government officials and experts on North Korea doubted the North intends to give up its long-range missile technology.

"It is the biggest diplomatic card North Korea can play in high-stake dealings with the United States," said Chung Kyong-man, an analyst at the state Korea Institute for Defense Analysis.

Other analysts said the North's gesture may be intended to bolster the Russian president's position at the upcoming summit of the leading industrial countries plus Russia, the so-called G-8. Putin flies to Japan on Friday for the G-8 summit.