China, North Korea hold strategic talks in Beijing
Neither Pyongyang or Beijing offered details of the meeting between North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui. They were expected to focus on bilateral relations and the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
The meeting followed Pyongyang's surprise offer Sunday for direct talks with the U.S. after months of threats that raised the possibility of fresh fighting on the Korean Peninsula.
With its long-range rocket launch and nuclear test earlier this year, North Korea angered China, its most important ally, leading Beijing to back tightened U.N. sanctions, crack down on North Korean banking activity and urge Pyongyang to return to disarmament talks.
North Korea has sought to mend ties since then, including with a visit last month to Beijing by top envoy Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, who was quoted as saying Pyongyang was "willing to take active measures" to return to talks.
Choe's visit was followed by renewed outreach to South Korea, and on Sunday, Pyongyang proposed "senior-level" talks with the U.S. to ease tensions and negotiate a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War, which concluded only with an armistice.
However, in its invitation, North Korea's National Defense Commission, the powerful governing body led by leader Kim Jong Un, insisted that there be no preconditions to talks and no demands that Pyongyang give up its prized nuclear assets unless Washington is willing to do the same.
The Obama administration responded that it was open to dialogue, but wants "credible negotiations" that involve North Korean compliance with U.N. resolutions and would lead to a nuclear-free North.
In Washington, U.S. envoy on North Korea, Glyn Davies, held three-way talks Wednesday with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, aimed at maintaining close coordination on their policy toward Pyongyang. They also agreed to deepen consultations with China and Russia.
In a statement afterward, the U.S., Japan and South Korea agreed "a path is open" for North Korea for improved relations with all of them, if it takes "takes meaningful steps on denuclearization." They also mentioned the need for improved inter-Korean relations and -- addressing an issue of particular importance to Japan -- the resolution of cases of abduction by North Korea.
Renewing nuclear talks is also expected to be on the agenda for meetings this week between Chinese leaders and visiting United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister.
China is also expected to reaffirm its support for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula during a visit next week by South Korea's President Park Geun-hye.
North Korea continues to send mixed messages on negotiations and its only clear intent is to mend ties with Beijing, said Fang Xiuyu, a professor at the Center for Korean Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University.
"North Korea hopes this visit could achieve the goal of having a meeting between leaders of the two countries and expounding to China its nuclear stance," Fang said.
However, six-nation talks are dependent on first improving North-South relations and holding talks between Pyongyang and Washington, he said.
"Without those conditions, the effect of the talks won't be good even if they do resume," Fang said.
North Korea likely used Wednesday's talks to seek Chinese support for arranging a meeting with the U.S., said Hwang Jihwan, a North Korea expert at the University of Seoul.
"North Korea will try to strategically use its relationship with China to facilitate dialogue with Washington. It will try to talk to the U.S. through China," Hwang said.
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