NKorean Premier starts rare Southeast Asia trip

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HANOI, Oct 26 (Reuters) North Korea's premier began a rare Southeast Asian tour today that diplomats and political analysts say could lead to trade ties with the region.

Premier Kim Yong-il, who is in charge of economic policy, arrived in communist-run Vietnam, which Western diplomats and analysts say could provide North Korea with a model for development.

''If North Korea is planning on coming out, then Vietnam could be one of the countries that can assist and Vietnam is also a possible model and a non-threatening one,'' said Carl Thayer, political analyst with the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Kim, appointed in April, arrived at Hanoi airport in a small Soviet-made aircraft with a delegation that included several cabinet ministers. He was to be given a formal welcome on Saturday morning.

During his Vietnam trip, he will visit a coal mine, a port, an agricultural institute and an industrial zone before going to Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos.

Cambodia and North Korea will sign a trade and investment pact, Cambodian officials said. Vietnam said Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had asked ministries to ''build a roadmap'' to forge an investment pact with North Korea.

Economic analysts and diplomats said impoverished North Korea is desperate for foreign currency and trade.

United Nations sanctions imposed after a nuclear test in Oct 2006 severed the North's limited trade with the outside world.

Pyongyang has shown signs in the past month of moving out of isolation by agreeing to disable its nuclear weapons capability and leader Kim Jong-il hosted a summit with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun earlier this month.

The Premier is visiting Hanoi just 10 days after Communist Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh received a red carpet reception in Pyongyang from Kim Jong-il.

Vietnam's ruling party newspaper Nhan Dan (People) reported that Kim Jong-il accepted Manh's invitation to visit Hanoi, but it gave no further details.

The two are among five communist-run countries in the world.

Vietnam, opening its economy and the newest World Trade Organisation member, says it has done almost no trade with North Korea since 1996.

In contrast, Vietnam's business ties with South Korea are booming. South Korea is the biggest investor in Vietnam and two-way trade is about 4 billion dollars.

The North Korean premier was scheduled to hold talks with Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on Oct 31.

''Kim wants to get better acquainted with Malaysian leaders,'' a Malaysian diplomatic source said. ''Both sides also hoped to open new areas of cooperation.'' Vietnam, elected on Oct 16 to a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, says it is ''ready to contribute actively'' to peace on the divided Korean peninsula.

''The government appears to want to be more and more involved in the situation,'' a Hanoi-based diplomat said.

In March, Hanoi hosted talks between North Korea and Japan toward those two countries establishing diplomatic ties.


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