NKorea considers return to nuclear talks

PYONGYANG, North Korea – North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told China's premier the North was prepared to return to multinational disarmament talks but said that will depend on progress in its two-way negotiations with the U.S.

Kim's comments, carried Tuesday by official North Korean and Chinese media, were the clearest sign yet that Pyongyang was readying to resume the six-nation talks it withdrew from after conducting a long-range rocket test in April and a second nuclear test in May.

Adding urgency to those efforts was a report Tuesday by South Korea's Yonhap news agency saying that U.S. and South Korean intelligence authorities believe the North is in the final stages of restoring its nuclear program that it pledged to disable in 2007 before backing out of the disarmament process.

In a meeting Monday, Kim told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao the North "is willing to attend multilateral talks, including the six-party talks, depending on the progress in its talks with the United States," China's Xinhua News Agency said in a report issued early Tuesday.

The North's Korean Central News Agency said Kim told Wen that denuclearization remained a goal and that historically hostile relations with the U.S. "should be converted into peaceful ties through bilateral talks without fail."

North Korea has been moderating its tone in recent weeks, signaling its willingness to resume a dialogue with the United States, China and other partners and backing away from the provocative behavior and rhetoric of the spring.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Washington was aware of reports that North Korea would reconsider opening talks but said the United States had not gotten details of the meeting from the Chinese.

"We've talked to our Chinese partners in the six-party talks and we're conducting close coordination with China and the other partners in the talks," Kelly said. "We, of course, encourage any kind of dialogue that would help us lead to our ultimate goal that's shared by all the partners in the six-party talks, which is the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

The Yonhap report said South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities concluded the North is restoring its nuclear program after scrutinizing about 10 atomic facilities in North Korea since April when the communist regime said it had restarted the program in anger over a U.N. rebuke of its rocket launch. The report, citing an unidentified South Korean defense source, did not describe how intelligence authorities managed to scrutinize the North's secretive facilities.

Under the six-nation talks, North Koreas had agreed in 2007 to disable its nuclear facilities in return for international aid. In June last year, the North blew up the cooling tower at its main nuclear complex near Pyongyang in show of its commitment to denuclerization. But disablement came to halt later in 2008 as Pyongyang wrangled with Washington over how to verify its past atomic activities.

The North's state media said last month the government had informed the U.N. Security Council it was in the final stages of enriching uranium.

Yonhap also cited the source as saying North Korea conducted missile engine tests recently at its new launch site on the country's west coast, which has been in the final stage of construction.

Kim's remarks to Wen came on the second day of the Chinese premier's three-day trip to Pyongyang to celebrate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the neighbors.

Kim greeted Wen on his arrival Sunday at Pyongyang's airport, APTN footage showed. That was a rare honor for a non-head of state, reflecting Beijing's importance as the North's chief economic and diplomatic backer.

Beijing was under pressure from other governments to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. China provides much of the food assistance and most of the oil needed to keep the listing North Korean economy going.

Both countries' communist leaderships traded congratulatory messages Monday extolling what the Chinese called their "good neighborly, friendly and cooperative relations."

Kim's comments appeared to be calibrated to pressure Washington for progress in one-on-one talks without alienating North Korean hardliners by backing away from the North's earlier stance that it would never return to multinational negotiations, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

Associated Press Writers Jae-soon Chang and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

AFP/Armend Nimani