North Korea nuclear envoy visits China, talks closer

SEOUL/BEIJING Tue Feb 9, 2010 3:32pm EST

A border security soldier of South Korea checks a bus carrying a South Korean delegation at the CIQ (customs, immigration and quarantine) office, just south of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul February 8, 2010. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

A border security soldier of South Korea checks a bus carrying a South Korean delegation at the CIQ (customs, immigration and quarantine) office, just south of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul February 8, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Lee Jae-Won

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SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea's top nuclear envoy arrived in Beijing on Tuesday as Pyongyang said it was willing to step up talks with China on resuming stalled disarmament-for-aid talks.

The apparent shift by North Korea toward returning to six-party talks came a day after the North's leader, Kim Jong-il, pledged again to remove nuclear weapons from the peninsula.

Kim has made, and broken, similar pledges before, and analysts say it is unlikely he will ever scrap nuclear arms, which are seen at home as the crowning achievement in his military-first rule.

But they say the impoverished North is feeling the pressure of U.N. sanctions imposed after its nuclear test last year, as well as a botched currency reform that the South said sparked inflation and rare civil unrest.

Kim Kye-gwan, the North's top nuclear negotiator, arrived in Beijing on Tuesday.

"Dispatching Kim Kye-gwan indicates that some sort of understanding is being worked out between China and North Korea on restarting the nuclear talks," said Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul.

The North quit the talks -- involving China, the United States, Japan, Russia and South Korea -- a year ago.

China, the North's biggest benefactor, is seen as having the most influence on the reclusive state.

During a visit to Pyongyang on Monday, Kim told senior Chinese official Wang Jiarui that North Korea was willing to further step up communication and coordination with China about a resumption of the six-party talks process, said a statement from the Chinese Communist Party's international department.

Wang also passed on a message to Kim from President Hu Jintao, inviting him to visit China "when convenient" and calling for the nuclear issue to be "appropriately dealt with," it added.

The Chinese statement said Kim had reiterated the North's "persistent stance to realize the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" during the meeting with Wang.

The North has said many times it could end its nuclear arms program if the United States drops what Pyongyang sees as a hostile policy toward it.

In another high-profile visit to the country, U.N. Under Secretary General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe was expected to arrive in Pyongyang on Tuesday.

The destitute North can win aid to prop up its broken economy at the six-way talks if it reduces the security threat it poses to North Asia, which is responsible for one-sixth of the global economy.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said North Korea was "saying the right things" but noted that this had to be followed up with action on rejoining the six-party talks and recommitting to a stalled disarmament-for-aid deal.

"We think that China and the United States see the current situation with respect to North Korea very similarly, and we would hope that the North Korean delegation will receive a very firm message" in Beijing, Crowley said.

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Eric Walsh)

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