AFP - North Korea said Tuesday it is willing to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations but only on condition it first holds talks with the United States to improve relations.
Leader Kim Jong-Il gave the commitment at a meeting late Monday in Pyongyang with visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the North's official news agency reported.
Highlighting the need to restart negotiations, a South Korean source said the North appears to be in the final stages of restoring plutonium-producing plants which it had shut down before abandoning the six-party process.
"The hostile relations between the DPRK (North Korea) and the United States should be converted into peaceful ties through the bilateral talks without fail," the Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying.
"We expressed our readiness to hold multilateral talks, depending on the outcome of the DPRK-US talks. The six-party talks are also included in the multilateral talks," the agency paraphrased Kim as saying.
Kim said the North's efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula remain unchanged. China's official Xinhua news agency said the two leaders reached "vital consensus" on the issue.
The North quit the six-nation forum in April after the United Nations condemned its long-range rocket launch.
In May it staged its second nuclear test, incurring tougher UN sanctions supported even by close ally China. The United States has been leading a drive to enforce the sanctions.
The North has long been pressing for bilateral talks with the United States to end the nuclear standoff.
The US State Department reiterated it is ready for discussions aimed at bringing the North back to the six-nation talks, but the goal must be a complete end to Pyongyang's nuclear programmes.
"We and our six-party partners want North Korea to engage in a dialogue that leads to complete and verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula through irreversible steps," said spokesman Ian Kelly in response to the announcement in Pyongyang.
The six-party talks which began in 2003 group the two Koreas, host nation China, the United States, Russia and Japan. The forum reached deals in 2005 and 2007 under which the North shut down its plants at Yongbyon and began disabling them.
After quitting the talks the North vowed to reverse the process.
"There are signs that the restoration of the Yongbyon facility is in its final stage," the South Korean defence source told Yonhap news agency, citing intelligence reports presented at a parliamentary hearing this week.
Wen's high-profile three-day visit which ended Tuesday was officially described as a goodwill trip to attend celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations.
But Beijing is eager to bring Pyongyang back to negotiations. And analysts said Pyongyang cannot afford to snub its sole major ally, biggest trade partner and chief energy supplier.
Kim Jong-Il personally hosted an elaborate red-carpet airport welcome for Wen on Sunday and greeted him with a hug.
The North Koreans "are clearly trying to mend relations with China and show appreciation for its economic assistance," said Peter Beck, senior researcher at Stanford University in the United States.
"But the North has left itself a lot of wiggle room to back out of the talks if feels it's not getting what it wants," he told AFP.
"Given the North's recent strong statements about the need for its nuclear programmes, I find it hard to believe it's ready to give them up any time soon."
The North has linked denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula to the pace of global atomic disarmament efforts, and claimed it needs atomic weapons as a shield against US hostility.
It also seeks formal recognition as a nuclear-armed state, something Washington and Seoul have adamantly rejected.