North Korea, Russia to hold joint defence drill-media

TOKYO - North Korea and Russia are set to hold their first joint defence drill as early as this year in an attempt to balance the United States, South Korea and Japan's influence on the Korean peninsula, the Asahi newspaper reported on Tuesday.

Members of the two neighbours' navies and air forces will take part in a joint rescue exercise at sea, following an agreement reached last month by impoverished North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Japan's Asahi said, citing a source close to the North.

It is rare for the North to conduct defence drills with other militaries. Japan and South Korea are likely to keep an eye on the exercise, though it not expected to involve the use of weapons, the Asahi reported.

Isolated Pyongyang, which in 2009 walked out of talks aimed at providing it with economic and energy aid as an incentive to give up its atomic weapons programme, has been making conciliatory moves in recent months.

Those have raised hopes that six-party talks, which would bring together North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States, could resume, with Moscow and Beijing supporting such a move.

But Seoul, Washington and Tokyo are wary and have called for a restart only when the North takes concrete steps to disable its atomic programme such as allowing foreign nuclear inspectors into the country.

The United States and South Korea last year held large-scale joint military exercises to which Japan sent its naval officers as observers.

Moscow was the North's main ally for decades, giving military and economic support before the Soviet Union collapsed. Kim promised Medvedev when they met in Siberia last month that he would consider suspending nuclear arms tests and production if the six-party talks resumed.