Kim Jong-il's reported statement to Wen Jiabao that North Korea was willing to return to the six-party talks is a small step, but a welcome one.
While Pyongyang is engaged in talks, there is some hope that the outstanding issues of North Korean nuclearisation and its intentions towards South Korea and Japan are being addressed.
Since the last talks ended in late 2008, North Korea has been on a roller-coaster of aggression, testing nuclear devices, launching missiles, and arresting journalists.
Despite all the talking, the fundamental issues remain. North Korea's military is focused on having a nuclear capacity. Its leadership wants direct talks with the US. The Obama administration wants to talk to Pyongyang but with the Russians, Japanese, Chinese and South Koreans at the table.
That Kim Jong-il made his remarks during a visit by the Chinese leader reinforces the importance of Chinese influence. China may get frustrated with its "little brother" over the border, but it cannot walk away. Too much is at stake. For many Chinese, Kim Jong-il has manipulated and used them against the US. But the red line is that they can't, metaphorically, go nuclear on the North Koreans, even while North Korea is literally going nuclear for itself.
Things have changed since the last round of talks in 2007-08, for this reason. There is now less tolerance of Pyongyang's brinkmanship diplomacy. The stop-go methods of its leadership have exhausted the patience of everyone.
So if and when talks start, they have to have a clear timetable, and a clear objective. Letting them drag on over months and years is not an option. The US will no doubt be expected to show good will by supplying energy and aid. China and Russia will have to chip in. Even Japan will need to help.
But the North Koreans will have to offer proper decommissioning of their plants, re-admission to the international non-proliferation organisations, and something more than just verbal expressions of good will. This time, the talks have to be meaningful and lead somewhere. No one, least of all the Chinese, want another meandering talking shop, ending in more threats and bad behaviour.
The writer is a senior fellow at Chatham House on the Asia Programme
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