Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will visit North Korea next week, the government said, as the international community increases pressure on Pyongyang to return to nuclear disarmament talks.
The rare October 4-6 visit by Wen, which both Beijing and Pyongyang described as a “goodwill” trip, was hailed by a top US envoy who said it would send a “strong message” to the North’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il.
North Korea quit six-nation disarmament talks in April and staged its second nuclear test the following month. The forum hosted by China also includes Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
“We are quite appreciative of the fact that China, like other countries involved, has sent a very clear message to North Korea that there is unanimity among all countries in the region about the need for them to return to the six-party talks and to resume the path of denuclearisation,” said US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.
“The fact that they are hearing this message from China as well as the countries in the region helps to reinforce a strong message,” he told a news conference in Malaysia, his second stop on a five-nation Asian tour.
‘Common interests’ to be discussed
The Chinese foreign ministry said in a brief statement that Wen would meet with North Korean leaders on bilateral ties and “issues of common interest,” without providing further details.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency also confirmed that Wen would visit Pyongyang but provided no information about his itinerary.
China’s President Hu Jintao visited the North in October 2005, and Kim Jong-Il repaid the favour by travelling to Beijing in January 2006. But no Chinese leader has been to Pyongyang since.
Wen met his North Korean counterpart Kim Yong-Il in Beijing in March.
Harsh line adopted after nuclear tests
Pyongyang quit the disarmament forum in protest at United Nations censure of its long-range rocket launch on April 5.
After its May 25 atomic weapons test, it incurred stronger UN sanctions supported even by China, its closest ally.
The hardline communist state is pressing for direct talks with Washington to end the nuclear standoff.
But this month the reclusive Kim Jong-Il appeared to leave the door open for a return to six-party negotiations, telling a visiting Chinese envoy his country was willing to engage in bilateral and multilateral talks.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Kim could make an “important announcement” during Wen’s visit.
The agency, quoting diplomatic sources in Beijing, said he was expected to state his willingness to give up nuclear weapons and make detailed suggestions.
It said the leader would likely also deliver his clear position on whether North Korea wants six-party talks or a different form of dialogue.
Several gestures of goodwill made
Since August the North has made peace overtures to Washington and Seoul.
It freed two detained US reporters, released five South Koreans, eased border curbs for visitors from the South and dropped demands for huge pay rises at a Seoul-funded industrial estate.
But South Korean officials have expressed scepticism about the overtures, saying their neighbour has not changed its fundamental attitude and shows no sign of willingness to end its nuclear drive.
Pyongyang last month announced it has reached the final stages of an experimental programme to enrich uranium — a second route to a nuclear bomb in addition to its admitted plutonium-based operation.
Washington is taking steps to enforce the tougher UN sanctions.
Steinberg, who was headed from Malaysia to China, South Korea and Japan, said Sunday in Vietnam the US wanted its six-party partners to send Pyongyang a “unified” message to return to the talks.
“At the same time, we are determined to continue with very strong implementation of Security Council Resolution 1874 that was adopted after North Korea’s last nuclear test,” Steinberg told reporters.
Foreign ministers from China, Japan and South Korea met in Shanghai Monday to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue and other topics.
Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Kazuo Kodama said the three countries needed to “deliver a strong message” to North Korea that it must return to the six-nation talks.