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North Korea's Kim Woos China's Wen

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

BEIJING (Reuters) -- North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il made a rare appearance to greet visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, starting a trip that swiftly drew a statement from the North that it was willing to discuss its nuclear weapons.

A report from China's Xinhua news agency said Premier Wen was greeted at the airport by Kim, the secretive leader who dominates big decisions in his country.

Wen later held talks with North Korean Premier Kim Yong-Il -- no relative to his supreme leader -- who told him Pyongyang was open to talks on its nuclear weapons programme, which has drawn United Nations Security Council sanctions backed by Beijing.

Kim Jong-il's unusual outing, followed by the calming words from Premier Kim, were a show of how serious North Korea is about shoring up ties with Beijing, which gives its poor neighbor crucial economic help and diplomatic backing.

Kim Jong-il is widely believed to have suffered a serious illness last year, and it is rare for him to personally greet an arriving visitor. Even audiences are uncommon.

Chinese state television showed Kim embracing Wen after his arrival. Kim appeared thin and sallow, but vigorous enough to greet a long line of smiling Chinese officials.

Wen's trip coincides with the 60th anniversary of formal ties between the two communist neighbors. His three days in North Korea are likely to feature soothing gestures of friendship, and not the hard-nosed negotiations over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons that preoccupy other powers.

But analysts said China, the closest North Korea has to an ally, would not send such a senior visitor unless it had some assurance from Pyongyang that could ease tensions over its nuclear weapons activities, following a second nuclear test and its claims to have made progress in enriching uranium.

"This visit will be mostly focused on bolstering bilateral relations and the 60th anniversary, but the nuclear issue is sure to come up," said Zhu Feng, a professor of international security at Peking University.

"The key question will be whether North Korea goes beyond its recent statements and directly expresses willingness to return to the six-party (nuclear disarmament) talks," said Zhu. "That would be China's goal for this visit."

In a meeting with Wen, North Korea's Premier Kim Yong-il, no relative of his supreme leader, did not go that far.

But he said North Korea has never abandoned the goal of "denuclearising" the Korean peninsula, according to Chinese state television news.

"We are willing to seek to realize this goal through bilateral and multilateral talks," said Premier Kim.

Analysts have said the wary North may want to calm regional tensions over its small atomic arsenal, but it has shown no signs of wanting to abandon entirely its nuclear capability.

Wen said China approved of North Korea's vow to seek "denuclearisation," Chinese television reported.

"The international community universally agrees on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and consultation," Wen told him, according to the report.

"China is willing to strengthen communication and consultation with North Korea," Wen added.

Stranded Talks

The six-party talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States ground to a halt about a year ago, with Pyongyang saying it will boycott the sessions aimed at curtailing its nuclear weapons ambitions in return for aid.

North Korea in recent months has reached out to regional powers, including the United States, after being hit with U.N. sanctions for the nuclear test in May.

But many observers doubt North Korea is willing to make real steps towards nuclear disarmament, especially without bilateral negotiations and an agreement with the United States.

Beijing and Pyongyang are also using Wen's visit to shore up sometimes brittle bilateral ties. China does not want international pressure on North Korea to risk political turmoil there that could unleash refugees across the border.

Chinese television news showed Wen being driven through Pyongyang in a limousine, being greeted by thousands of locals wearing bright national costumes and waving pink and read paper bouquets.

Wen told Premier Kim that China wanted to help "North Korea develop its economy and improve people's lives," Xinhua news agency reported.

"China won't be offering unconditional economic support to North Korea," said Zhu, the professor. "It will be linked, indirectly at least, to progress on the nuclear issue."