BEIJING A North Korean envoy told China's president on Friday that his reclusive country was willing to take "positive actions" to ensure peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, as China steps up diplomatic efforts to bring Pyongyang back to talks.
But Choe Ryong-hae, a special envoy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, made no offer to abandon North Korea's nuclear program. The United States insists North Korea takes meaningful steps on denuclearization before there can be dialogue.
Choe met Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, in the highest-ranking visit by an official from Pyongyang in about six months.
Chinese state media said Choe presented a hand-written letter from Kim to Xi at Beijing's Great Hall of the People. Media provided no details of its contents.
"North Korea is willing to make joint efforts with all parties to appropriately resolve related issues through multilateral dialogue and consultations like the six-party talks, and maintain peace and stability on the peninsula," the official Xinhua news service cited Choe as telling Xi.
"To this end, North Korea is willing to take positive actions," Choe added.
Xi told Choe that the denuclearization of the peninsula was an aspiration of all peoples and an inevitable trend, saying problems should be resolved through talks.
"China hopes all sides exercise calm and restraint, push for a lessening of tensions, restart the six-party talks process and make unremitting efforts ... for long-lasting peace and stability," Xi said.
China has repeatedly urged North Korea to return to the so-called six party talks process, aimed at denuclearization.
The United States and its allies believe the North violated a 2005 aid-for-denuclearization deal by conducting a nuclear test in 2006 and pursuing a uranium enrichment program that would give it a second path to a nuclear weapon in addition to its plutonium-based program.
The six-party aid-for-disarmament talks, involving the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and host China, collapsed in 2008 when the North walked away from the deal.
China, North Korea's only real ally, has been pushing for a return to talks after weeks of bellicose words from Pyongyang following new United Nations sanctions after the North's third nuclear test in February.
Russia welcomed North Korea's declaration of readiness to return to talks and said it deserved a "a positive assessment", the Interfax news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry special envoy Grigory Logvinov as saying.
China has looked on nervously at the ratcheting up of tension, fearful a misstep could plunge the peninsula into war which could envelop northeastern China.
Fan Chonglong, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, expressed that worry in a meeting with Choe.
"In recent years, the state of affairs around the Korean peninsula nuclear issue frequently turns into one escalation of tensions after another," China's Xinhua state news agency quoted Fan as saying.
"The conflicting strategies of all parties have intensified, jeopardizing peace," Fan said.
China has increasingly expressed its impatience with North Korea, signing up for the new U.N. sanctions and curtailing Chinese banks' contacts with their North Korean counterparts.
Choe told Fan that peace could not be assured although North Korea wanted it in order to build the country, and it was willing to work with all sides in solving problems, Xinhua said.
"The situation on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia is complex and extraordinary, and there is no guarantee of peace," Choe was quoted as saying.
Cai Jian, a North Korean expert at Shanghai's Fudan University, said that while such high-level contact between the two countries was important, especially following the chilling of ties, he did not see a quick resumption of six-party talks.
"The U.S. says if North Korea doesn't clearly renounce its nuclear program, it won't return to the six-party talks. But if the international community doesn't hold peace talks with North Korea, then North Korea will use that time to develop its nuclear weapons and missiles," Cai said.
Choe and his entourage spent three days in Beijing in full military regalia, in contrast to the mostly civilian leaders he met, though he changed out of his uniform to meet Xi.
"Sending Choe in military uniforms as an envoy to China means North Korea still wants to stick to their right to have a nuclear arsenal," said Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Affairs at Seoul National University.
Choe was dispatched at this time because North Korea is mindful of Xi's talks with U.S. President Barack Obama in early June, Chang said.
Xi is due to hold his first meeting with Obama in the United States and North Korea is expected to be high on the agenda.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye plans to make a state visit to China at the end of June, presidential spokeswoman Kim Haing said on Friday.
"Though China says it can't do everything alone, China still is a country that can exercise considerable influence" over North Korea, Park said during a meeting with U.S. security experts on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan, and Ju-min Park in SEOUL, Alissa de Carbonnel in MOSCOW; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)