North Korea's Kim Jong Il reportedly dispatched his top nuclear envoy to Beijing on Tuesday to discuss restarting nuclear disarmament talks, a day after pledging Pyongyang's commitment to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
Kim made the disarmament pledge during a meeting Monday with a high-level envoy from Beijing at the start of a week of diplomacy designed to get the six-nation nuclear talks back on track. A high-level U.N. envoy also was due in Pyongyang on Tuesday.
North Korea walked away from the talks last year during a standoff over its nuclear and missile programs. The disarmament process includes the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States.
Pyongyang, however, has been reaching out to Washington, Seoul and Beijing in recent months, and has taken tentative steps toward discussing how to get the process going again. Analysts say the about-face shows the regime is feeling the pinch from sanctions taken after its May nuclear test.
"The sincerity of relevant parties to resume the six-party talks is very important," Kim said during a meeting with top Chinese Communist Party official Wang Jiarui, China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported from Pyongyang. Kim reiterated his country's "persistent stance to realize the denuclearization" of the peninsula, the report said.
Wang delivered to Kim a letter from Chinese President Hu Jintao saying Beijing also is ready to enhance cooperation and work with North Korea to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula, Xinhua said. Hu also invited Kim to visit China, the report said.
On Tuesday, South Korean media reports said North Korea's top nuclear envoy, Kim Kye Gwan, landed in Beijing with Wang, who was returning home after a four-day trip to Pyongyang. The North Korean envoy was expected to discuss the nuclear talks with Chinese officials, the Yonhap news agency said, citing unidentified diplomatic sources in Beijing.
China's Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on Kim's reported arrival.
"This is a sign that the resumption of the six-party talks is imminent," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "Kim Kye Gwan is expected to tell Chinese officials about North Korea's disarmament plan in a more concrete manner" - probably in return for aid from Beijing, he said.
U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe also is expected in North Korea this week, reportedly bearing a letter from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Pascoe's trip will be the first there by a high-level U.N. official since 2004, according to Seoul's Foreign Ministry.
Pascoe's role is to try negotiating a breakthrough on the nuclear talks, said analyst Paik Hak-soon of the private Sejong Institute think tank in South Korea.
North Korea has made clear it wants U.N. sanctions lifted and a peace treaty with Washington formally ending the 1950-1953 Korean War before it returns to the disarmament talks. Pyongyang cites the U.S. military presence in South Korea as its main reason for building up its nuclear weapons program.
Washington says Pyongyang must come back to the talks first before any discussion about political and economic concessions.
Paik predicted that North Korea and the U.S. would meet soon for "final coordination" to reopen the six-party talks.
Earlier Tuesday, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency called Kim Jong Il's talks with Wang "cordial and friendly" but didn't elaborate on what was discussed. The location of the meeting was unclear: Two KCNA-dispatched photos said it took place in Pyongyang while a Xinhua photo caption citing the eastern city of Hamhung.