(CNSNews.com) - North Korea and Russia issued a joint call Thursday for the U.S. to abandon its proposed national missile defense umbrella, but made no mention of a report one day earlier that North Korea was conditionally prepared to give up its offensive missile program.
The statement by presidents Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Il, issued through the official Central News Agency, came shortly before Putin ended a two-day visit to the reclusive communist state, the first ever by a Russian or Soviet leader.
It said North Korea's "missile program does not pose any threat to anybody but is purely peaceful in its nature."
Putin and Kim also called for the preservation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Treaty, which would need to be amended should the U.S. press ahead with the NMD plans.
North Korea is one of three countries generally named by officials in Washington as developing the capacity to launch missiles at the U.S. in the near future, thus making a missile-interception system necessary. The other two are Iran and Iraq.
On Wednesday, a Russian news agency quoted Putin as saying after meeting Kim that Pyongyang was willing to scrap its missile program if other countries would cooperate in helping it to launch satellites "for peaceful space research."
But Thursday's Putin-Kim declaration did not repeat or elaborate on the offer, which appeared to be designed to undermine the American argument for developing NMD.
The U.S. believes North Korea already has the wherewithal to fire missiles at Alaska and Hawaii, and that the rest of the country could be within reach by 2005. In 1998 Pyongyang unnerved the region by test-firing a medium-range ballistic missile that flew over Japan before landing in the Pacific.
It was not clear whether North Korea was offering only to stop its own program, or also to halt exports of missile technology, a key demand of the U.S.
North Korean officials at bilateral talks last week told their U.S. counterparts that the country should receive $1 billion for each year it suspends missile sales abroad. The Americans rejected the demand.
Western intelligence sources suspect North Korea of selling missile know-how to Iran, Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries.
Reacting to the offer as reported by Putin, a senior U.S. official told reporters near the Mideast peace talks in Maryland it was too early to judge whether it was a serious one.
The official noted that North Korea had already demonstrated its ballistic missile capability - a reference to the 1998 test-launch.
In South Korea, officials and analysts also responded cautiously.
The Korea Herald in Seoul quoted a foreign ministry official as saying the government was looking into the report, but there was "little possibility that the North Korean leader made such a pledge." Other officials voiced similar skepticism.
Dongguk University of Seoul analyst Dr. Ko Yu-hwan said: "There is no reason for North Korea to easily give up the missile program as it has been the most valuable bargaining chip in its negotiations with the United States."
Analysts say Putin's visit to North Korea is partly at attempt to burnish his image as an emerging international statesman, and partly aimed at warning Washington that, if it pushes him into a corner over missile defense, Russia can look for allies in the East.
Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin earlier this week jointly condemned the NMD proposal, and appealed to the international community to take "all necessary measures" to oppose the plan.
Putin is likely to raise the issue again during the G8 summit in Okinawa, Japan, which begins Friday. There he will meet President Clinton and the leaders of Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Canada and Japan.
Some European leaders have already expressed their own concerns about the NMD idea.