PYONGYANG, North Korea – China's premier was given a gala welcome to Pyongyang on Sunday by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, bolstering indications that the North is preparing to rejoin talks over its nuclear weapons programs.
Kim greeted Wen Jiabao personally at the city's airport, embracing him on a red carpet and standing beside him as a military band played their country's respective national anthems. Wen was then driven into the tightly controlled capital in an open-topped car as residents lining the streets danced, waved bunches of flowers, and shouted greetings in unison.
The lavish welcome was a rare honor for a non-head of state, underscoring the importance the North places on its communist neighbors and offering a strong indication that it is planning to re-engage its negotiating partners after boycotting talks while threatening nuclear war and conducting nuclear and missile tests.
Although Wen's three-day visit is officially being held to commemorate 60 years of diplomatic relations, analysts say they doubt he would have agreed to the trip without assurances of new talks.
Kim has reportedly expressed a willingness to engage in "bilateral and multilateral talks," although it's unclear if that indicates a willingness to rejoin stalled six-nation disarmament talks that also involve the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Russia.
China hosts the talks and continues to promote them as the best forum for dealing with the issue. Pyongyang, however, is believed to favor direct negotiations with the United States.
At a later meeting with North Korean Prime Minister Kim Yong Il, Wen repeated China's position that a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula is in everybody's best interest and pledged to strengthen contacts with Pyongyang on the matter, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
Kim responded by saying the North had "never given up" on denuclearization and wished to achieve it through "bilateral and multilateral dialogue," CCTV said. The report made no mention of any solid commitment to rejoin talks.
During his visit, Wen is overseeing a series of agreements on trade and other bilateral issues, will meet with top leaders, and attend events commemorating historical ties.
A commitment to a return to talks during Wen's visit would be a solemn sign of respect for China, the most important source of economic aid and diplomatic support for the North's reclusive communist regime.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, said Beijing would not have sent Wen without prior assurances from Pyongyang on an announcement over nuclear talks.
"I think a Pyongyang declaration or a joint statement, which would contain progress in the six-party process and the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, would be announced," Yang said.
Yang said that at the least, the North would announce it would respect past international disarmament accords, indicating it intends to return to the talks. He said an announcement will most likely follow Wen's meeting with Kim Jong Il, scheduled for Monday.
Yang and others said they expect China to promise additional aid in return.
"North Korea has found that there is need to stabilize the situation now, as it has done everything it wanted to do, such as a nuclear test," said Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. "China would also consider getting North Korea to rejoin the six-party talks its diplomatic achievement."
Under the six-nation framework, North Korea pledged in September 2005 to dismantle its nuclear programs in exchange for pledges of energy assistance and diplomatic concessions.
Progress has been bumpy, and North Korea walked away from the talks in April to protest world criticism of a rocket launch. In May, it further escalated tensions by conducting a nuclear test, drawing a rebuke from Beijing and sanctions from the United Nations.
Pyongyang has begun to take a more conciliatory approach, most recently allowing meetings of family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
At the same time, Washington is applying increasing economic pressure on the North's foreign trade, targeting private banks that might have North Korean ties. U.S. officials hope to block money that could be used for missiles and nuclear bombs and, ultimately, to drive the North back to talks.
The U.S. administration said last month it and its top Asian allies had agreed that direct U.S.-North Korean talks may be the best way to bring the North back to the negotiating table.
But the officials also suggested that China needs to lay more groundwork before President Barack Obama decides to send his special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, to Pyongyang.