BEIJING – China's second-highest leader returned from North Korea (search) on Friday bearing an agreement "in principle" from Pyongyang to rejoin talks about its nuclear program -- a diplomatic prize that will help cement Beijing's position as a regional power.
Wu Bangguo (search), the Chinese Communist Party's No. 2 man and the head of its legislature, spent three days in the North, a rare visit by a top Chinese official.
And in an even more unusual move, Wu met with Kim Jong Il (search), North Korea's reclusive leader.
Photos of Wu and Kim, with wide grins and their hands clasped as other officials looked on approvingly, festooned state-controlled newspapers across the country Friday.
On Thursday night, the two countries announced their agreement that a second round of discussions should take place.
"Both sides agreed in principle that the six-way talks should continue," China Central Television said.
Although no time frame was given and it was not immediately clear what the next step would be, the mini-breakthrough is nonetheless a prestigious moment for China in its efforts to become a respected global player.
The official Xinhua News Agency quoted Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China's point man on North Korean affairs, as saying the trip was "crowned with success."
Wu's visit developed the principle of "inheriting tradition, facing up to the future, promoting good-neighborly friendship and enhancing cooperation," said Wang, who was part of the Chinese delegation.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry was equally upbeat.
"It will have important bearing upon the future development of bilateral ties between China and North Korea," said spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue.
While the photos and headlines showed China's pleasure with the development, and signal its approval to Kim, it also could be aimed at locking North Korea into its position.
The first six-way summit was held in Beijing in August. While no concrete resolution was reached, the two Koreas, China, the United States, Japan and Russia agreed to convene again -- a commitment the North quickly scrapped and scorned. It had since gone back and forth about whether it would join future meetings.
Even though North Korea's latest statement is couched in tentative language, it could be considered more binding because it was made publicly alongside China, its last major ally, and one it doesn't want to alienate.
Pyongyang also made sure the announcement called for "a package solution based on the principle of simultaneous actions" -- a phrase apparently meaning that it would only stand down if Washington meets its demands at the same time.
U.S. officials insist the North immediately shut down its nuclear program and allow inspections. Pyongyang says it will not unless Washington offers a written nonaggression treaty and diplomatic ties, and restores millions of dollars in aid.
The dispute began a year ago when the United States said North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear program.
The North is believed already to have one or two atomic bombs, and recently said it extracted plutonium from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods to build more.