SEOUL - Russia's foreign minister will visit North Korea next week, a source said on Friday, as regional powers try to prevent the state from restarting its nuclear arms plant and defuse tensions that have rattled regional security.

U.N. nuclear inspectors left North Korea on Thursday after an angry Pyongyang said it would boycott nuclear disarmament talks, expel inspectors and restart a plant that makes arms-grade plutonium in response to being chastised at the United Nations for launching a long-range rocket about two weeks ago.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit North Korea next week, a Foreign Ministry source told Reuters.

Lavrov will try to sway the reclusive North to return to six-way nuclear talks and abide by a disarmament-for-aid deal, according to a separate report from the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo.

China, the North's biggest benefactor, wants the United States to engage Pyongyang directly in a bid to ease escalating tensions, China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Japan's Nikkei newspaper.

(China) hopes for an improvement and development of U.S.-North Korea relations, Yang, a former ambassador to Washington, said in an interview in Beijing.

China and Russia prevented North Korea from being hit with fresh sanctions for the launch, widely seen as a disguised long-range missile test that violated U.N. resolutions.

But they backed a U.N. Security Council statement on Monday condemning North Korea for the April 5 launch. Until that statement Beijing had avoided open criticism, instead suggesting it was a legitimate satellite launch as Pyongyang claimed.

Beijing's handling of impoverished North Korea has wobbled in past days, suggesting policymakers did not anticipate the full force of Pyongyang's anger.


China, whose energy and food aid to North Korea prop up its economy, has the strongest voice in persuading North Korea to return to the sputtering nuclear talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, analysts said.

North Korea, which was hit with U.N. sanctions after missile tests in July 2006 and its only nuclear test a few months later, has used its military threat for years to gain global attention and squeeze concessions out of regional powers.

By making these moves early in the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, it has more cards to play during his presidency and forces him to make crucial decisions about how it will manage its relations with Pyongyang, analysts said.

The Obama administration is unlikely to hold direct talks with North Korea over the nuclear threats because it could be seen as a sign of rewarding Pyongyang's bad behavior, diplomatic sources have said.

However, North Korea may discuss terms for releasing two U.S. journalists it detained last month near its border with China -- Euna Lee and Laura Ling of California-based media outlet Current TV -- as a way to engage in direct talks with Washington.

(The matter) could spark a back-channel negotiation, which could ultimately open the door for bilateral talks later on, said Yun Duk-min of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul.

Market players in North Asia, which accounts for one-sixth of the global economy, have been unfazed by the North's latest actions, seen as typical saber rattling.

But North Korea could ratchet up tension if it followed through on its threat to restart its aging Yongbyon nuclear plant, which was being dismantled under the six-way nuclear deal in return for massive aid and better diplomatic standing.

It will take at least a year to resume all activities at the plant, which has produced enough fissile material for six to eight nuclear bombs, experts said.

However, it may only take as little as three months for the North to restore its plutonium separation facility. North Korea could extract enough fissile material for one bomb from fuel rods cooling at Yongbyon, they said.