SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea dispatched its top diplomat to Russia on Saturday amid a flurry of regional diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions over the North's deadly artillery attack on South Korea.
North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun left for Russia, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said in a one-sentence report. No details were given, but Pak accused South Korea and the United States on Friday of pursuing a policy of hostility and confrontation and reiterated that North Korea needs its nuclear program to fend them off.
"We once again feel convinced that we have made the right choice in strengthening our defenses with the nuclear deterrent," he said, according to an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax.
The trip comes two days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met in Pyongyang with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Beijing's top foreign policy official. The two reached consensus on the situation on the Korean peninsula during candid and in-depth talks, China's official Xinhua News Agency said, without elaborating.
It was not clear whether the two discussed the North's Nov. 23 artillery attack on a South Korean island near the Koreas' disputed western sea border. The barrage killed four South Koreans, including two civilians.
China has been under intense international pressure to use its diplomatic clout to rein in North Korea, its ally.
On Friday, China briefed South Korea on Dai's meeting with Kim through a diplomatic channel, a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said Saturday, noting that North Korea's position appeared to remain unchanged. He did not elaborate and asked not to be identified because of the issue's sensitivity.
Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is to visit North Korea this coming week, raising the prospect of a diplomatic resolution to the tensions. He is to depart from the U.S. on Tuesday.
The diplomatic troubleshooter has made regular visits to North Korea and has also hosted North Korean officials in New Mexico. He helped win the release of Americans held in North Korea in the 1990s and traveled to Pyongyang in 2007 to recover remains of U.S. servicemen killed in the Korean War.
The flurry of diplomacy comes as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak expressed optimism during a trip to Malaysia that the reunification of Korea is drawing near.
"North Korea now remains one of the most belligerent nations in the world," Lee said in an interview published Friday in The Star, a Malaysian newspaper. But, he added, it's a "fact that the two Koreas will have to coexist peacefully and, in the end, realize reunification."
In a speech Thursday night, Lee made similar remarks, saying North Koreans have become increasingly aware that the South is better off. He did not elaborate on how their knowledge has expanded, but said it was "an important change that no one can stop."
"Reunification is drawing near," Lee said, according to the president's website.
He also called on China to urge North Korea to embrace the same economic openness that has led millions of Chinese out of poverty — and said that North Korean economic independence was the key to reunification.
Lee didn't give a specific timeframe for the reunification of the Korean peninsula, which was divided after the end of Japanese rule in 1945 and officially remains in a state of war because the Koreas' 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
It wasn't clear why Lee was making a push for reunification now. South Korean leaders often call for a peaceful reunification with the North. There is in Seoul, however, a wariness of the huge social and economic costs associated with absorbing the impoverished North.
North Korea also has called repeatedly for reunification, but it imagines integration under its authoritarian political system. It has shown no sign that it would allow any reunification that results in its absorption by the richer South.
Associated Press writer Foster Klug in Seoul contributed to this report.