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North Korean Leader Hints at Return to Nuclear Talks

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has concluded a rare excursion outside his country to China. He expressed support for the eventual goal of nuclear disarmament, but his first-class treatment in China is an irritant to South Korean officials who suspect the North may have sunk one of its navy ships.

News reports say North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who is believed to detest flying, crossed back into his country from China Friday aboard a specially armored train.

Mr. Kim spent four days in China, stopping in the port cities of Dalian and Tianjin in addition to visiting the capital, Beijing.

Chinese state media displayed images of Mr. Kim with President Hu Jintao, who according to the news anchor, welcomed Mr. Kim on "non-governmental business."

Other Chinese television footage showed Mr. Kim with thinning hair, and walking with a slight limp, fueling speculation about his progress since a stroke he is believed to have had in 2008.

Beijing's official Xinhua news agency said Friday Mr. Kim had not changed his position "in favor of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." The Xinhua report said he would discuss "creating favorable conditions" for resuming six-nation talks aimed at scrapping Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal.

For decades, China has been a lifeline of food, fuel, and cash for the North's hobbled economy. Hong Hyun-ik is with the Sejong Institute, a research organization studying national security in Seoul. He says Mr. Kim's comments on the nuclear issue are a play for even more Chinese aid.

He says North Korea seems ready to remove the conditions it has set in the past for returning to nuclear talks in exchange for aid. As a result, he says, China gets to keep its pride as the host of the nuclear talks, and the North gets some relief during its lean season in the form of food and oil.

VOA's Barry Newhouse discussed the implications of the North Korean leader's visit to China with with South Korean analyst Lee Dong-Bok.
Lee Dong-Bok: North Korea might have been in need of some additional support and assistance from China. You know, North Korea has been known to be going through a couple of bad crops for the last two years. Many people are now talking about North Korea going into another period of food shortage soon."

Barry Newhouse: "I thought the itinerary of his trip was interesting. Do you read anything into that?"

Lee Dong-Bok: "China had been spending many years trying to prevail upon North Korea to adapt a North Korean version of Chinese reform and opening economic policy. North Korea had been roundly negative to such prodding from Beijing. But now North Korea is finding itself in need of some additional economic assistance and aid from China, I get the feeling that Kim Jong Il have felt the need to show to the Chinese that he was now ready to have an interest in emulating Chinese reform and opening."

Barry Newhouse
: "Can you tell me a little bit about, for you and other observers of North Korea, how do you go about understanding what is going on in these meetings because there's been very little information officially."

Lee Dong-Bok: "We have been told this morning that the Chinese foreign ministry summoned our ambassador in Beijing and gave some descriptive briefing about what what had transpired during the visit of Kim Jong Il to Beijing. But as much as I know, that explanation was very sketchy. So it is now the guesswork of many people."

Images of Chinese hospitality toward the Mr. Kim have frustrated many in South Korea, where the public appears more convinced by the day that the North had a role in the sinking of one of the South's navy ships.

Forty-six South Korean sailors died in March when an explosion tore their ship in half near a maritime border long rejected by North Korea. South Korean media quoted unnamed officials Friday as saying investigators had found gunpowder and tiny fragments consistent with a torpedo embedded in the remains of the ship.

Seoul has not explicitly blamed the North. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Friday if the North's guilt is proven, he believes China will "understand and play a role."

Chung Mong-joon, chairman of Mr. Lee's Grand National Party, expressed irritation at China's welcome for the North Korean leader.

He says China may have allowed the visit despite concerns on the part of South Korea and the United States, but adds that if a North Korean role in the Cheonan sinking is proven, China will no longer be able to cover for the North.