North Korean official to hold talks in China; analysts skeptical

BEIJING Mon Jun 17, 2013 8:28am EDT

BEIJING (Reuters) - A senior North Korean official who has been the country's negotiator at denuclearization talks will visit Beijing this week, China said on Monday, although analysts were skeptical Pyongyang was about to make concessions on its nuclear program.

On Sunday, North Korea offered negotiations with Washington to ease tensions after threatening to wage war on the United States and South Korea earlier this year. The White House said any talks must involve actions by Pyongyang to show it is moving towards scrapping its nuclear weapons.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui would meet North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan on Wednesday in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing.

"Holding this kind of strategic dialogue is because China and North Korea always maintain close communication," Hua said without giving specific details on what the talks would cover.

Kim was North Korea's main negotiator at so-called six party talks that aimed to get Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program. In 2009, Pyongyang said it would never return to those talks.

China, Pyongyang's only major ally, has repeatedly urged North Korea to return to the six-party framework. The other participants were South Korea, the United States, Japan and Russia.

Some analysts said Kim's meetings in China would be a way for North Korea to lower tensions without giving in to demands to abandon its nuclear weapons.

"North Korea has been under a lot of pressure, and they don't want to continue to be provocative like in the past six months," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing's Renmin University.

"They are seeking a route of retreat, but also rejecting denuclearization promises by rejecting the six-party talks."

North Korea has repeatedly said it will never abandon its nuclear weapons, calling them its "treasured sword".

Pyongyang was making a spate of gestures because it was feeling the pressure from a summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping this month, said Cho Bong-hyun, an expert on the North's economy at the IBK Economic Institute in Seoul.

Both leaders agreed Pyongyang had to denuclearize.

"More substantively, the North is faced with the task of having to make an image change in order to draw foreign investment, a large part of which will have to come from China," Cho said.

Late last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sent a senior envoy to Beijing.

According to a source with knowledge of that visit, Chinese officials told the envoy that Beijing wanted an end to the North's nuclear and missile tests.

Washington has been skeptical of any move by Pyongyang towards dialogue as it has repeatedly backtracked on deals, most recently in 2012, when it agreed to a missile and nuclear test moratorium only to fire a rocket weeks later.

In its proposal for talks with Washington, North Korea said it was willing to discuss disarmament but that the United States should not attach preconditions.

Earlier this year, North Korea threatened nuclear and missile strikes against South Korea and the United States after it was hit with U.N. sanctions for a nuclear weapons test on February 12, the country's third.

North Korea also remains unpredictable, despite appearing to want to talk.

After agreeing to hold dialogue with South Korea to reopen joint economic projects, Pyongyang abruptly canceled the talks last week because of a row over who would represent the respective delegations.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and Li Hui in Beijing and Jack Kim and Park Ju-min in Seoul; Editing by Dean Yates)

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