China's premier said Saturday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was showing signs of flexibility and that China, South Korea and Japan must seize the chance to put talks on disabling Pyongyang's nuclear program back on track.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told a news conference after a meeting of the leaders of the three countries that they had to "seize the opportunity" to resume the stalled six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Wen made a high-profile trip to Pyongyang last week, where Kim told him that his isolated communist country may end its boycott of the talks, depending on its negotiations with Washington.
The U.S. has not yet publicly responded to that apparent overture. But American officials have said talks with North Korea may be possible if they are part of the six-nation disarmament negotiations that Pyongyang spurned after it was condemned for conducting a rocket launch in April and nuclear test in May.
Japanese officials said late Friday that the U.S. had indicated it might meet with North Korea and that Pyongyang appears increasingly willing to return to the talks.
Key to drawing the North back into disarmament talks are U.N. sanctions imposed after the rocket launch and nuclear test.
Pyongyang earlier had insisted it would never return to the talks, which involve China, Japan, the U.S., the two Koreas and Russia. Kim's offer of dialogue appears to reflect the North's keenness for direct engagement with Washington — a perennial demand.
On Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said they agreed the North should not be given aid until it begins to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea is pushing to send its deputy nuclear envoy Ri Gun to the United States later this month for a private security forum, a South Korean diplomat said. He asked not to be identified because the forum's organizers have not announced details of the session.
The planned trip raises speculation that Ri could meet with U.S. officials to lay the groundwork for possible direct talks with Washington.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Friday that non-governmental organizations have invited Ri to participate in meetings in the U.S., but he said no decision has been made yet "whether to approve that travel."
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