N. Korea's envoy tells China his country is ready for talks

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Choe Ryong-hae (C), director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army (KPA) of North Korea, visits the Beijing Economic and Technical Development Zone, in this May 23, 2013 picture released by the North Korea's KCNA news agency. REUTERS/KCNA

A North Korean envoy told a top Chinese official his country is willing to return to dialogue, as the U.S. and China press North Korea to come back to the negotiating table over its nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. and South Korea said it was too early to tell if Choe Ryong Hae's comments yesterday during a visit to Beijing marked a step forward in efforts to restart six-party talks stalled since 2008. The North defied United Nations sanctions with a rocket launch in December and a nuclear test in February.

China, the North's chief political and economic benefactor, has come under pressure to rein in Kim Jong Un's regime, which threatened in March to launch preemptive nuclear strikes against South Korea and the U.S. Choe's visit may signal that North Korea is looking to ease tensions as backs off its bellicose rhetoric from recent weeks.

"This is North Korea's way to say "˜Ouch, you've got us,'" said Paul Haenle, director of Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. ""˜You've turned up the pain and we feel it. Now we are coming to you to let you know that you have leverage.'"

Choe is the highest ranking North Korean official to visit China since Kim succeeded his late father Kim Jong Il as leader in 2011. He met today with Fan Changlong, the vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission.

Alleviate tensions

During a meeting with Choe yesterday, Liu Yunshan, deputy general secretary of China's Communist Party, told Choe that China hopes all countries concerned will stick to the goal of denuclearization and resume six-nation talks as soon as possible to alleviate tensions, according a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement.

North Korea is "willing to accept advice from the Chinese side and carry out dialogue with relevant parties," China's official Xinhua News Agency reported last night. The countries in the talks are North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S.

"I think the Chinese took advantage of the opportunity to be able to express their displeasure with the regime, but also give them some kind of bone to hopefully prevent them from going beyond the provocation cycle," said David S. Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

South Korean Foreign Ministry has no confirmed knowledge on whether Choe has met Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

Too early

South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung Suk said today it was too early to draw any conclusion from the remarks. Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai Young declined to comment.

U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the Obama administration didn't know enough about the visit to characterize the remarks.

"We're committed to keeping the five parties of the six- party process very much united and focused on denuclearization and our core goal in that regard," he said.

North Korea depends on China for fuel oil and consumer goods, and trade between the two has dropped since the rocket launch and nuclear test. The regime fired six short-range missiles between May 18 and 20, and freed a Chinese fishing vessel and its crew on May 21 after China filed a formal complaint over the detention.

Second-highest

Choe, 63, holds the second-highest rank in the North Korean military after Kim Jong Un. He rose to prominence in October 2010, when Kim Jong Il tapped him to serve as a guardian for his son and successor.

The Chinese statement restated the government's position on four items that Kim's government has rejected publicly, including eliminating all nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula and the six-nation talks, wrote U.S. intelligence analyst John McCreary, an expert on Northeast Asia, in his May 22 NightWatch newsletter, published by Kforce Government Solutions Inc. of Fairfax, Virginia.

"The concluding paragraph of the Chinese statement is a strong indicator that the conversation was probably "˜heated,' not just "˜warm,'" McCreary wrote. "The next round of appointments Choe makes or does not make will provide important insights as to the state of China's relations with North Korea."

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