BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea is committed to removing nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula and wants to co-exist peacefully, leader Kim Jong-il said on Friday in his first meeting with a foreign envoy since his suspected stroke in August.
China’s state Xinhua news agency said Kim made the comments during a visit to Pyongyang by a senior Chinese official.
Analysts have said a meeting with a foreign visitor would offer evidence that Kim, who U.S. and South Korean officials said fell seriously ill in August, was well enough to run Asia’s only communist dynasty and make decisions about its nuclear program.
“The North Korean side will commit itself to the denuclearization of the North Korean peninsula, and hopes to co-exist peacefully with other involved parties,” Xinhua news agency quoted Kim as saying.
“North Korea is not willing to see tensions emerge in the peninsula, and is willing to strengthen consultation and cooperation with China to push forward the six-party talks,” Kim added, referring to multilateral talks aimed at having destitute North Korea scrap its nuclear programme in return for aid.
Xinhua and the North’s KCNA news agency said Kim met Wang Jiarui, visiting head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department, on Friday.
It is rare for Kim to be quoted directly
His comments came after the North hinted in a New Year’s message that it was willing to work with new U.S. President Barack Obama by saying it wanted good relations with countries that treated it in an amicable manner.
The North, which has dragged its heels in the six-way talks, has also said it can scrap nuclear weapons when it feels Washington has dropped its “hostile policy” toward it.
North Korea has “weaponised” enough declared plutonium stocks to produce four to five nuclear weapons, a U.S. expert said last week after returning from talks with officials in Pyongyang.
Kim’s reported comments — which were not carried by North Korean media — were a sharp contrast to the tough rhetoric its state media has fired off at South Korea and its president, who has taken a tough line toward Pyongyang.
South Korea last weekend placed its military — backed by some 28,000 U.S. troops in the South — after Pyongyang said it would wipe out its neighbor and warned of possible conflict in disputed waters off the peninsula’s west coast, which has been the scene of deadly naval conflicts.
Xinhua said Kim also “warmly accepted” an invitation to visit China, the North’s biggest benefactor, that was proffered in a letter from Chinese President Hu Jintao on the occasion of the Lunar New Year.
North Korea’s state KRT television showed 15 still pictures of Wang and Kim, whose trademark paunch looked smaller than a year ago, sitting down for discussions and sharing a toast at a luncheon. Kim’s left hand appeared severely swollen in photographs carried on Xinhua.
The last high-profile reception given by Kim was in June when Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visited Pyongyang, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.
North Korea’s state media have issued numerous reports in recent months saying Kim has visited army units, factories and farms. But there has been no proof of when the visits took place.
In undated photos released by North Korea, Kim has been swaddled in padded coats, ski gloves and dark sunglasses. The North has not released video of Kim since the suspected illness leading to speculation in the South that he may still show the lingering effects of the stroke.
Analysts said the meeting with Wang was part of efforts to highlight Kim’s firm grip on power as the state heads into a March 8 election of its rubber stamp parliament when he is expected to be reaffirmed as its supreme military leader.
“That’s a major public event he must attend,” said Cho Min of the Korea Institute for National Unification, an expert on the inner workings of Pyongyang. “These things are coming because the North is confident about his health.”
Kim has been conspicuously absent from major events in the past several months that he has attended before.
Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Kim Junghyun in Seoul and Chris Buckley in Beijing; Editing by Dean Yates