China Premier Will Travel to North Korea

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will travel to North Korea next week, Beijing's Foreign Ministry and Pyongyang's state media said Monday, amid a flurry of international efforts to convince the reclusive regime to return to stalled nuclear disarmament talks.

Wen will meet with North Korean leaders during the Oct. 4-6 visit to discuss bilateral ties and "issues of common concern," China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. He will also attend celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, it said.

Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency said in a brief dispatch earlier Monday that Wen will pay an "official goodwill" visit at the North Korean government's invitation.

Wen's trip comes after the North has taken a series of conciliatory gestures toward South Korea and the United States after months of tension over its nuclear and missile programs.

China, which is North Korea's biggest source of economic aid and diplomatic support, could be key in pushing for the resumption of the disarmament talks. The North pulled out of the talks with the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan in April to protest international criticism of a rocket launch.

Earlier Monday, Yonhap news agency reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il could announce some concrete denuclearization measures during Wen's visit.

Yonhap, citing unidentified diplomatic sources in Beijing, reported that Wen was expected to promise free food and fuel aid to the impoverished North in return for Kim's disarmament measures.

Washington's No. 2 diplomat expressed optimism that China would send a clear message to the North on international unity in calling for the North to return to the nuclear talks and disarm.

"The United States and all countries in the region are very clear that we do not intend to accept the idea of North Korea as a nuclear power and that there are clear consequences associated with the steps that they have taken," Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.

Steinberg, who started his regional tour with a visit to Vietnam this weekend, is to travel on to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo. In Beijing, he was to meet Vice President Xi Jinping and State Councilor Dai Bingguo on Tuesday. In his remarks Monday, he did not specifically refer to Wen's trip.

The North has been insisting on one-on-one talks with the U.S. instead of the six-party nuclear talks. Washington, which had demanded the North first return to the six-nation negotiations, is now considering direct talks as part of its efforts to restart the six-party process.

Last month, Kim reportedly expressed willingness to engage in "bilateral and multilateral talks" during a meeting with Dai, who was dispatched as a presidential envoy to Pyongyang. That appeared to indicate the country could rejoin the six-party negotiations.

Wen is to meet South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in a trilateral meeting on Oct. 10 in Beijing, which is expected to focus on North Korea's nuclear program and regional cooperation.

The foreign ministers of China, South Korea and China met in Shanghai, China, on Monday, to set the agenda for the summit and consider how to respond to North Korea's recent conciliatory gestures.