The North Korean leader Kim Jong II told China's premier the North was prepared to return to multinational disarmament talks but said that will depend on progress in its two-way negotiations with the US. Mr Kim's comments, carried today by the official North Korean and Chinese media, were the clearest sign yet that Pyongyang was readying to resume the six-nation talks it withdrew from after conducting a long-range rocket test in April and a second nuclear test in May.
Adding urgency to those efforts was a report today by South Korea's Yonhap news agency saying that the US and South Korean intelligence authorities believe the North is in the final stages of restoring its nuclear programme that it pledged to disable in 2007 before backing out of the disarmament process. In a meeting on Monday, Mr Kim told the Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao the North "is willing to attend multilateral talks, including the six-party talks, depending on the progress in its talks with the United States," China's Xinhua news agency said in a report issued early today.
The North Korean's official Korean Central News Agency said that Mr Kim told Mr Wen that denuclearisation remained a goal and that historically hostile relations with the US "should be converted into peaceful ties through bilateral talks without fail." North Korea has been moderating its tone in recent weeks, signalling its willingness to resume a dialogue with the United States, China and other partners and backing away from the provocative behaviour and rhetoric of the spring.
The State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Washington was aware of reports that North Korea would reconsider opening talks but said the United States had not received details of the meeting from the Chinese. "We've talked to our Chinese partners in the six-party talks and we're conducting close co-ordination with China and the other partners in the talks," Mr Kelly said. "We, of course, encourage any kind of dialogue that would help us lead to our ultimate goal that's shared by all the partners in the six-party talks, which is the complete and verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula."
The Yonhap report said South Korean and US intelligence authorities concluded the North is restoring its nuclear programme after scrutinising about 10 atomic facilities in North Korea since April when the communist regime said it had restarted the programme in anger over a UN rebuke of its rocket launch. The report, citing an unidentified South Korean defence source, did not describe how intelligence authorities managed to scrutinise the North's secretive facilities. Under the six-nation talks, North Korea had agreed in 2007 to disable its nuclear facilities in return for international aid.
In June last year, the North blew up the cooling tower at its main nuclear complex near Pyongyang in show of its commitment to denuclerisation. But disablement came to halt later in 2008 as Pyongyang wrangled with Washington over how to verify its past atomic activities. The North's state media said last month the government had informed the UN Security Council it was in the final stages of enriching uranium.
Yonhap also cited the source as saying North Korea conducted missile engine tests recently at its new launch site on the country's west coast, which has been in the final stage of construction. Mr Kim's remarks to Mr Wen came on the second day of the Chinese premier's three-day trip to Pyongyang to celebrate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the neighbours. Mr Kim greeted Mr Wen on his arrival on Sunday at Pyongyang's airport.
That was a rare honour for a non-head of state, reflecting Beijing's importance as the North's chief economic and diplomatic backer. Beijing was under pressure from other governments to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. China provides much of the food assistance and most of the oil needed to keep the listing North Korean economy going. Both countries' communist leaderships traded congratulatory messages on Monday extolling what the Chinese called their "good neighbourly, friendly and cooperative relations".
Mr Kim's comments appeared to be calibrated to pressure Washington for progress in one-on-one talks without alienating North Korean hardliners by backing away from the North's earlier stance that it would never return to multinational negotiations, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies. "It is aimed at saving the face of China, pressuring the US and taking care of the domestic audience," Mr Yang said.
Mr Wen's visit is seen as an inducement to Pyongyang to return to the disarmament talks, which China sponsored and which include Japan, Russia and South Korea as well as the US and North Korea. The cautious Chinese leadership is unlikely to have agreed to Mr Wen's trip without assurances about resumed talks. China fought alongside North Korea against the US-led forces in the 1950-53 Korean War but the two sides have drifted apart in recent decades as China embraced free-market reforms and North Korea remained a defiantly closed, totalitarian state.
Despite strains, Beijing rarely threatens North Korea publicly, preferring to offer support to encourage Pyongyang to engage the outside world. *AP