China's premier visits North Korea

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China's Premier Wen Jiabao met the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il yesterday amid signs that North Korea may be willing to restart talks over its nuclear weapons programmes.

Mr Kim greeted Wen Jiabao personally at the city's airport, embracing him on a red carpet and standing beside him as a military band played their country's respective national anthems. Wen was then driven into the tightly controlled capital in an open-topped car as residents lining the streets danced, waved bunches of flowers, and shouted greetings in unison.

The lavish welcome was a rare honour for a non-head of state, underscoring the importance the North places on its communist neighbors and offering a strong indication that it is planning to re-engage its negotiating partners after boycotting talks while threatening nuclear war and conducting nuclear and missile tests.

Although Wen's three-day visit is officially being held to commemorate 60 years of diplomatic relations, analysts say they doubt he would have agreed to the trip without assurances of new talks.

Kim has reportedly expressed a willingness to engage in "bilateral and multilateral talks," although it's unclear if that indicates a willingness to rejoin stalled six-nation disarmament talks that also involve the US, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

China hosts the talks and continues to promote them as the best forum for dealing with the issue. Pyongyang, however, is believed to favor direct negotiations with the United States.

At a later meeting with North Korean Prime Minister Kim Yong Il, Wen repeated China's position that a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula is in everybody's best interest and pledged to strengthen contacts with Pyongyang on the matter, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

Kim responded by saying the North had "never given up" on denuclearization and wished to achieve it through "bilateral and multilateral dialogue," CCTV said. The report made no mention of any solid commitment to rejoin talks.

During his visit, Wen is overseeing a series of agreements on trade and other bilateral issues, will meet with top leaders, and attend events commemorating historical ties.