SEOUL, South Korea – North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reportedly said Friday his country is ready to engage in multilateral talks, the latest move in a diplomatic chess game with the U.S. and regional powers seeking to rid Pyongyang of nuclear weapons.
"North Korea would like to solve relevant issues through bilateral and multilateral talks," China's official Xinhua News Agency quoted Kim as telling a special envoy sent by Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Kim's remarks heightened the possibility of Pyongyang's return to stalled six-party disarmament negotiations it defiantly quit earlier this year.
Though Kim did not appear to specify the forum — which involves the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan — North Korea watchers believe that is the signal he is sending.
Kim's mention of multilateral talks "is seen as North Korea's intention to return to the six-nation negotiations," said analyst Lee Sang-hyun of the Sejong Institute, a security think tank outside Seoul.
North Korea has been insisting on one-on-one negotiations with the United States over its nuclear programs. Washington, which had strictly demanded the North first return to the multilateral negotiating table, is now, however, mulling direct talks in what appears to be a subtle policy shift to help break the nuclear impasse and eventually resume the six-party discussions.
China, North Korea's principal ally, has hosted the forum since 2003. The last session was held in December last year.
"North Korea appears to have determined that it has no choice but to accept the opportunity," the Sejong Institute's Lee said, noting Washington and Pyongyang are seeking common ground for dialogue amid a burgeoning mood of conciliation.
North Korea released two detained U.S. journalists last month in an apparent goodwill overture to Washington during a visit by former President Bill Clinton. It also subsequently released a detained South Korean worker and four captured South Korean fishermen and called for the resumption of stalled tourism projects with Seoul.
North Korea's Kim also told the Chinese envoy, Dai Bingguo, that North Korea "is committed to safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean peninsula," Xinhua reported from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
North Korea has said it cannot give up its nuclear arsenal as long as the U.S. continues with what Pyongyang says is a "hostile policy" and plans for a nuclear attack. Washington denies it has any such intentions.
In a letter Dai handed to Kim, Hu reiterated Beijing's stance that the Korean peninsula should be denuclearized and said China is ready to spare no efforts to work with North Korea to realize that goal, Xinhua said.
South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young declined to comment on Kim's reported remarks.
Dai and top Chinese nuclear envoy Wu Dawei returned to Beijing later Friday, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said.
The Kim-Dai meeting comes amid recent speculation of a possible visit to Pyongyang by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao early next month, although there has been no confirmation from Beijing. Also, the North has invited Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special envoy on North Korea, to visit the country, an invitation Washington says it is considering.
In response to a question in the National Assembly in Seoul on Thursday, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said he understood that Wen would visit, but that the timing had not been finalized.
Friday's meeting in Pyongyang came as the United States studies the North's call for direct talks on its nuclear weapons. The U.S. says such dialogue could be worthwhile to get North Korea back into the six-nation disarmament negotiations.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters Friday that he had seen press reports about the Dai meeting with Kim but would not comment further, referring questions to Chinese officials.
"We, of course, remain committed to engaging North Korea bilaterally but only in the six-party context, only if it helps to lead to a resumption of that six-party contact," Kelly said.
South Korea says it does not oppose direct U.S.-North Korea talks if they are aimed at resuming the six-party process.
But South Korean officials, including President Lee Myung-bak, have cautioned against any hasty optimism, saying North Korea has shown no willingness to disarm.
They say North Korea's recent conciliatory gestures came because it feels the pain of U.N. sanctions on its weapons exports and financial dealings that were imposed after it conducted a nuclear test in May.
Earlier Friday, Yu said North Korea's calls for direct talks with Washington are related to its strategy to gain international recognition of its possession of nuclear weapons.
"The reason North Korea is repeatedly insisting on direct talks is because it wants to be recognized as a nuclear state in order to proceed with arms reduction talks with the U.S.," Yu said in a speech at the Korea Chamber of Commerce, according to his office.
The U.S. has long said it will never recognize North Korea as a nuclear power.