North Korea's leader is offering to return to multinational disarmament talks in a renewed effort to draw Washington into one-on-one talks that the United States has yet to fully embrace.
Kim Jong Il's offer, reported Tuesday by North Korean state media, reflects Pyongyang's desire for direct engagement with Washington. The administration of President Barack Obama has said that might be possible but any talks should be part of the six-nation process aimed at ending the North's nuclear programs.
Kim told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday that the North "is willing to attend multilateral talks, including the six-party talks, depending on the progress in its talks with the United States," China's Xinhua News Agency reported.
"Kim Jong Il wants to show through bilateral talks with the U.S. that his country is an equal partner of the United States, and this will strengthen his position before returning to the six-way talks," said analyst Lee Sang-hyun of the Sejong Institute, a South Korean security think tank.
Kim's comments were the clearest indication yet from Pyongyang that it might return to the talks from which it withdrew after conducting a rocket test in April and a second nuclear test in May. The regime said earlier it would never return to the multinational talks.
Adding urgency to those efforts was a report Tuesday by South Korea's Yonhap news agency saying that U.S. and South Korean intelligence authorities believe the North is in the final stages of restoring its nuclear program that it pledged to disable in 2007 before backing out of the disarmament process.
North Korea has been moderating its tone in recent weeks, signaling its willingness to resume a dialogue with the United States, China and other partners and backing away from the provocative behavior and rhetoric of the spring.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Washington was aware of reports that North Korea would reconsider opening talks but said the United States had not gotten details of the meeting from the Chinese.
"We've talked to our Chinese partners in the six-party talks and we're conducting close coordination with China and the other partners in the talks," Kelly said. "We, of course, encourage any kind of dialogue that would help us lead to our ultimate goal that's shared by all the partners in the six-party talks, which is the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."
Yonhap said South Korean and U.S. authorities concluded the North is restoring its nuclear program after scrutinizing about 10 atomic facilities since April when the North said it had restarted the program in anger over a U.N. rebuke of its rocket launch.
The report, citing an unidentified South Korean defense source, did not say how authorities managed to scrutinize the North's secretive facilities.
North Korea agreed in 2007 to disable its nuclear facilities in return for international aid. In June last year, the North blew up the cooling tower at its main nuclear complex near Pyongyang in show of its commitment. But the denuclearization came to a halt later in 2008 as Pyongyang wrangled with Washington over how to verify its past activities.
Kim's comments to Wen came as the Chinese premier, the country's No. 3 leader, was on a three-day trip to Pyongyang to celebrate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Beijing was under pressure from other governments to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.
Kim greeted Wen on his arrival Sunday at Pyongyang's airport, APTN footage showed. That was a rare honor for a non-head of state, reflecting Beijing's importance as the North's chief economic and diplomatic backer.
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