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China looks to North Korea nuclear talks before July

BEIJING (Reuters) - China wants stalled six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear arms activities to restart before July, a senior Chinese diplomat said, warning that progress was by no means certain.

Those talks bring together North and South Korea, host China, the United States, Japan and Russia, seeking to implement an agreement offering Pyongyang aid in return for nuclear disarmament steps.

Over a year ago, North Korea pulled out of the talks and then in may staged a second nuclear test, drawing international condemnation and fresh United Nations sanctions.

China’s envoy on the dispute, former Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, said he hoped to see progress in coming months, the China Daily reported on Friday.

“China’s goal is to start the six-party talks in the first half of this year,” Wu told the newspaper. “That’s our expectation, but it is difficult to say if this will be realized.”

The six-party talks have been a diplomatic trophy for China, which has hosted them since 2003. Beijing also tries to stay friendly with Pyongyang, and is usually coy about criticizing its communist neighbor.

Pyongyang has said it could curtail its nuclear arms program if the United States drops what North Korea calls a “hostile policy,” and it has also demanded Washington agree to peace treaty talks and lift sanctions.

Washington has said North Korea’s demands for aid and improved relations can be addressed only along with renewed nuclear disarmament steps by Pyongyang.

North Korea said on Tuesday the standoff over its nuclear program should be settled through direct talks with the United States, but first Washington must make concessions.

Citing unnamed sources, Japan’s Kyodo news agency said on Thursday that North Korea’s secretive leader Kim Jong-il plans to visit China in mid-March.

The visit would be his first since January 2006, when Kim toured China’s commercial centers, and his first trip abroad since his recovery from a suspected stroke in 2008.

Reporting by Huang Yan and Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills