BEIJING – North Korea's (search) premier toured a Chinese brewery on Wednesday, looking at China's (search) economic reforms after saying Pyongyang might be willing to return to nuclear disarmament talks.
Chinese leaders are urging Premier Pak Pong Ju (search) to restart the stalled talks, but apparently also want to use his visit to lobby the North to speed up Chinese-style reforms to revive its decrepit communist economy and reduce its dependence on foreign food aid.
Pak was led through the Yanjing Brewery by the company chairman, visiting fermentation rooms and an assembly line where bottles were being packed. The company says the brewery on the northern outskirts of the Chinese capital is the biggest in Asia.
"There's a close relationship between the beer industry and people's living standards, and (this) is an important industry for the improvement of people's lives," Pak said, speaking through his official translator.
On Tuesday, Pak told his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, that North Korea is willing to return to six-nation disarmament talks "if the conditions are right in the future," according to a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry.
The spokesman, Liu Jianchao, didn't say what those conditions would be. But the North has demanded in the past that the United States end its "hostile policy" and apologize for having referred to it as an outpost of tyranny. The North said last month that it was boycotting the talks indefinitely.
Washington has appealed to China's communist leaders to prod their isolated ally back to the bargaining table. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested Monday that Pyongyang might face sanctions if it doesn't cooperate.
China is believed to supply up to one-third of the North's food and one-quarter of its energy. But Beijing insists it has little influence over the Stalinist regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and has resisted U.S. appeals to pressure its ally.
Analysts say the North's declaration last month that it has nuclear weapons might prompt China to force Pyongyang back into talks. But they say Beijing might be holding out for a U.S. overture to make the North return willingly.
Wen told Pak the six-nation talks were the "only real, pragmatic way to resolve the nuclear issue," according to Liu.
Pak and Wen also signed an agreement Tuesday on investment protection, but the two sides didn't release any details.
Pak was scheduled to meet President Hu Jintao and visit Shanghai, the country's financial capital. His trip includes a stop in the city of Shenyang, the industrial center for China's northeast, which borders North Korea. On Tuesday, Pak toured a Nokia Corp. mobile phone factory in Beijing.
China has urged Pyongyang for years to revive its economy by speeding up market-style reforms. The country has begun allowing farmers markets and given state companies more autonomy but diplomats and aid workers say they see few other changes.
North Korea has relied on foreign aid to feed its 23.7 million people since the mid-1990s due to the collapse of its state farm system following decades of mismanagement and the loss of Soviet aid.
The nuclear dispute flared in late 2002 when Washington said Pyongyang admitted operating a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement that gave it oil and other aid for abandoning nuclear work.
China has organized three rounds of six-nation talks, which also include South Korea, Japan and Russia. The negotiations have snagged over North Korean demands for aid and a peace treaty with the United States in exchange for a settlement.
On Monday, the North announced that it had increased its nuclear arsenal to counter a possible invasion — apparently the first time Pyongyang has claimed actually to have done so.