North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (search) told a visiting Chinese diplomat Wednesday that his country seeks a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Xinhua also paraphrased Kim as saying he hoped six-party international talks could be an important platform for realizing that goal. A new round of talks — involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan — are expected to begin in Beijing the week of July 25.

Kim made his remarks to Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, who is on a diplomatic mission to the North as a representative of President Hu Jintao (search), Xinhua said.

North Korea "expects the next round of the talks to be held on time and make positive progress," Kim was quoted as saying.

He also thanked China for its "unremitting efforts toward the resumption of the six-party talks," Xinhua said, paraphrasing the reclusive leader.

China (search), the North's last major ally, has campaigned hard over the past year to restart the disarmament negotiations. Beijing is believed to supply North Korea with up to one-third of its food and one-quarter of its energy needs.

The report came after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) praised a South Korean energy aid proposal that enticed North Korea to end its 13-month boycott of the disarmament talks and expressed hope for an end to the international standoff.

The United States and South Korea are "very optimistic that our joint efforts to improve the security situation on the Korean Peninsula could indeed bear fruit, although of course there is still much work to be done," Rice said during a visit to Seoul, South Korea.

North Korea said over the weekend it would return to the nuclear talks after being reassured by the top U.S. nuclear envoy that Washington recognized Pyongyang's sovereignty. The North has stayed away from the weapons negotiations since June 2004, citing "hostile" U.S. policies.

Pyongyang declared in February that it had nuclear weapons and has insisted that the nuclear standoff can only be discussed with the United States. The North's claim has not been verified independently.

In March, it declared that it should be treated equally as a nuclear power, and it demanded that the six-nation talks address the disarmament of all countries involved — including the United States.

But last month, Kim said North Korea would return to the talks if it received appropriate respect from Washington.

On Wednesday, Rice urged North Korea to be prepared for substantive discussions on giving up its nuclear arms.

"The agreement of the North Koreans to come back to the talks is a very good step but only a first step," she said. "We look forward to a strategic decision by the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear weapons."

On Tuesday ahead of Rice's arrival, South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young said South Korea has offered to provide electricity to the North if it agrees to give up nuclear weapons at the revived arms talks — a previously secret proposal he made directly to the North Korean leader at a meeting last month.

Rice noted Wednesday that the North's energy needs were also addressed in a U.S. proposal made at the last nuclear talks in June 2004 that she said "is still on the table." Washington has promised diplomatic recognition and economic aid to the North only after it verifiably dismantles its nuclear weapons program.

Chung said the North has not responded directly to the plan, which also has been presented to U.S. officials.

South Korea on Tuesday also pledged to give 500,000 tons of rice to North Korea — Seoul's largest food shipment in five years — in aid that is not tied to the nuclear issue and that was agreed during economic talks between the two Koreas.