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North Korean Leader Vows Continued Cooperation in Nuclear Weapons Talks


North Korea's leader has been offering personal assurances to China's president of Pyongyang's positive role in talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons programs. Chinese President Hu Jintao is visiting the North Korean capital in an effort to build momentum for the talks, which still face major hurdles.

Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the North Korean capital went into its second day Saturday, and dispatches by the two countries' official news agencies have painted an optimistic picture for the six-party talks, which are due to resume early next month.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il greeted President Hu Friday evening with a bright smile and a bear hug at Pyongyang airport. The rare personal appearance by the normally reclusive Mr. Kim underscored China's status as the North's only major ally, and main provider of energy and food assistance.

China is scheduled to host the fifth round of the multinational negotiations. China, Japan, South Korea, the United States and Russia are offering a package of security, along with political and economic incentives, in exchange for the dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear programs.

Chinese media quoted Mr. Kim as promising that the North Korean delegation will show up for the talks. Mr. Hu was quoted as saying China would push for "new progress."

However, Peter Beck, Northeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group research organization, believes President Hu's main goal is simply to keep the diplomatic process moving.

"I think, the most the Chinese [president] can hope to do is just to, first, convince the North Koreans to come back to the table, and, two, to be reasonable," he said.

Mr. Beck says Beijing is not actually pursuing a breakthrough in the talks, but just trying to maintain the status quo.

"What China wants more than anything else is just to maintain stability," he said. "So, I don't think the Chinese have any real incentive to try to compel North Korea to come clean on its nuclear programs."

At the last six-party talks in September, North Korea agreed in principle to dismantle its nuclear programs, but insisted the other parties respect its right to use nuclear energy peacefully.

The issue of sequencing, or who takes what action when, is the main unfinished business of the talks. South Korea and the United States say they will not assist the North with civilian nuclear energy, until Pyongyang provides details of its existing nuclear programs and dismantles them.

Earlier this week, senior North Korean diplomat Han Song Ryol told a South Korean news agency that the North will not take any of those steps until it is presented with a nuclear reactor for peaceful energy.

Other diplomatic efforts are under way here in Seoul. Li Bin, the senior Chinese diplomat for Korean affairs, met with senior South Korean officials on Saturday. And U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator at the nuclear talks, is due to arrive Sunday for consultations with his South Korean counterpart.

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