North Korea has asked Russia to forgive its $8.8 billion Soviet-era debt saying it cannot pay it, a top Russian official said Friday.

Konstantin Pulikovsky, the co-chair of a bilateral intergovernmental commission, said that the issue would have to be addressed by the Russian leadership. "The (North) Korean side openly and sincerely said that it's unable to pay off the debt to Russia and asked to make a political decision on that," Pulikovsky said, according to the RIA Novosti and ITAR-Tass news agencies.

The Soviet Union was once a stalwart supporter and donor for North Korea, but bilateral ties withered after the 1991 Soviet breakup, and analysts say China now has far more influence with Pyongyang that Russia does. Russia shares a short border with North Korea.

Pulikovsky said Friday, after a session of the intergovernmental commission, that North Korea was proposing to have Russia help modernize a metallurgical plant and provide coal for which Pyongyang would pay later. He wouldn't say whether Russia could accept the offer.

North Korea is hungry for Russian coal and minerals and for skilled technicians to rebuild Soviet-built refineries and factories that have gone idle.

Russia, with its oil profits, has written off or eased the debt burden of several countries in Asia and the Middle East that had close ties with the Soviet Union, as President Vladimir Putin has sought to bolster trade and political relations with those nations and counter U.S. clout.

Russia has been involved in six-nation talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons programs. Russian officials have suggested that the U.S. position has been too tough, and urged the U.S. and North Korea to settle a dispute over financial issues.