Nuclear talks, trade and aid seen as underpinning North Korean leader's China visit

BEIJING (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met with China's president and was expected to meet with its premier Thursday for talks aimed at securing economic aid in exchange for his country's return to international nuclear negotiations, reports said.

Kim's visit has been shrouded in secrecy, with Chinese officials refusing to confirm for a third day that he was in the country. He has been seen by journalists several times since arriving in China on Monday aboard a special armored train.

On Wednesday evening, a fleet of North Korean-flagged limousines escorted by police was seen outside the Great Hall of the People, where Korean news agencies said Kim met with President Hu Jintao that evening and would meet with Premier Wen Jiabao and other leaders Thursday. Another meeting with Hu was possible, the agencies said. Kim was then expected to watch a North Korean remake of the Chinese opera "A Dream of Red Mansions" with Chinese officials.

Security was also very high around the Diaoyutai State Guest House in western Beijing where foreign leaders often stay on official visits. Police, soldiers and plainclothes agents surrounded the compound of lakes and villas. Police closed the road in front and parked a bus at the main gate to block journalists' view.

Thursday's discussions are expected to center on further financial help from China, which already is the biggest source of food and fuel aid for impoverished North Korea and its main bulwark against tougher international sanctions.

China told North Korea it would provide "sufficient" economic aid after the North promised not to stoke regional tension during the six-month Shanghai World Expo which opened last weekend, a Seoul-based activist said Wednesday, citing unidentified informants in Pyongyang.

"China needs to soothe North Korea," said Ha Tae-keung, who runs Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based radio station specializing in North Korea affairs.

Kim decided to visit China to obtain a reconfirmation of aid shipments urgently needed by his country because of deepening food shortages, Ha said.

China is widely seen as having the most clout with Kim's hard-line communist government. Kim has visited China five times since succeeding his father as ruler in 1994, the last time in 2006.

Chinese investment in North Korea has been growing, especially in natural resources, although economic chaos — most recently a botched currency reform effort — limits such opportunities.

Fearing the regime's implosion and mass unrest on its border, China is expected to accede to new aid requests, said Cai Jian, deputy director of the Center for Korean Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University. The sides may also start implementing economic agreements signed during the Chinese premier's trip to North Korea last year, Cai said.

While Beijing won't link the issues explicitly, it will expect Kim to show new willingness to rejoin long-stalled six-nation talks sponsored by China under which North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear programs in return for aid, Cai said.

An announcement during Kim's visit of a return to the negotiations could bring new talks by June, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. The participants also include South Korea, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.

North Korea quit the talks a year ago and then conducted a nuclear test that drew tightened U.N. sanctions.

On Tuesday, a Chinese official at a U.N. conference reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty underscored Beijing's hopes for a new round of talks.

"China has been committed to promoting diplomatic solutions of the Korean peninsula nuclear issue and the Iranian nuclear issue," said Li Baodong, China's main delegate to the monthlong conference.

Kim's trip also comes amid increasing speculation in South Korea that North Korea may have torpedoed a South Korean warship in disputed waters in March, killing 46 sailors. On Tuesday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak stopped just short of blaming the North.

North Korea has denied involvement in the sinking, accusing Seoul of spreading false rumors to shore up sanctions against the North and muster conservative votes ahead of mayoral and gubernatorial elections.


Associated Press Writers Hyung-jin Kim and Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul and researcher Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report.