BEIJING North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il made a rare appearance to greet visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the start of a trip which swiftly yielded a statement that North Korea was willing to discuss its nuclear weapons.
A report from China's Xinhua news agency said Premier Wen was greeted at the airport by Kim, the secretive leader who dominates big decisions in his country.
In the evening, Kim accompanied Wen to a Korean opera performance adapted from "Dream of the Red Mansions," an 18th-century Chinese romantic novel, Xinhua reported.
Wen also held talks with North Korean Premier Kim Yong-Il who told him Pyongyang was open to talks on its nuclear weapons program, which has drawn United Nations Security Council sanctions backed by Beijing.
Kim Jong-il's unusual outings, as well as the calming words from Premier Kim, were a show of how serious North Korea is about shoring up brittle ties with Beijing, which gives its poor neighbor crucial economic help and diplomatic backing.
Kim Jong-il is widely believed to have suffered a serious illness last year, and it is rare for him to personally greet an arriving visitor. Even audiences are uncommon.
Wen's three-day trip coincides with the 60th anniversary of formal ties between the two communist neighbors.
But analysts said China, the closest North Korea has to an ally, would not send such a senior visitor unless it had some assurance from Pyongyang that could ease tensions over its nuclear weapons activities, following a second nuclear test and its claims to have made progress in enriching uranium.
"This visit will be mostly focused on bolstering bilateral relations and the 60th anniversary, but the nuclear issue is sure to come up," said Zhu Feng, a professor of international security at Peking University.
"The key question will be whether North Korea goes beyond its recent statements and directly expresses willingness to return to the six-party (nuclear disarmament) talks," said Zhu. "That would be China's goal for this visit."
In his meeting with Wen, North Korea's Premier Kim did not go that far. He said his government has never abandoned the goal of "denuclearizing" the Korean peninsula, according to Chinese state television news.
"We are willing to seek to realize this goal through bilateral and multilateral talks," said Premier Kim.
Analysts have said wary North Korea may want to ease regional tensions over its small atomic arsenal, but has shown no signs of wanting to abandon entirely its nuclear capability.
Wen said China approved of North Korea's vow.
"The international community universally agrees on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and consultation," Wen told him, according to the television report.
The six-party talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States ground to a halt about a year ago, with Pyongyang saying it would boycott the sessions aimed at curtailing its nuclear weapons ambitions in return for aid.
North Korea in recent months has tried to improve ties with regional powers, including the United States, after being hit with U.N. sanctions for the nuclear test in May.
But many observers doubt North Korea is willing to make real steps toward nuclear disarmament, especially without bilateral negotiations and an agreement with the United States.
Beijing and Pyongyang are also using Wen's visit to help sometimes tense bilateral ties. China does not want international pressure on North Korea to risk political turmoil there that could release a flood of refugees into China.
Chinese state television showed Kim embracing Wen after his arrival. Kim appeared thin but vigorous enough to greet a line of smiling Chinese officials.
Wen was driven through Pyongyang in a limousine, greeted by thousands of locals wearing bright costumes and waving pink and red paper bouquets.
The two sides signed agreements on economic and technological cooperation, and agreed to build a new highway and bridge across the Yalu River that marks their border, Xinhua reported.
"China won't be offering unconditional economic support to North Korea," said Peking University's Zhu. "It will be linked, indirectly at least, to progress on the nuclear issue."
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Louise Ireland)