BEIJING - China and isolated North Korea should deepen military ties, the Chinese defence minister said on Tuesday, saying international turbulence had never damaged the bond between the two communist neighbours.

Defence Minister Liang Guanglie's comments, reported by China's Xinhua news agency during a visit to the reclusive state, were the latest sign that Beijing is seeking to shore up sometimes strained ties with North Korea, even as the North faces international sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme.

Liang told his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong-chun, that military ties between the two countries were an important part of their relationship, Xinhua reported.

China and North Korea established relations 60 years ago, and no matter how stormy the international changes, the traditional friendship between us has always advanced, said Liang.

Under new conditions, China is willing to have closer military contacts with North Korea, strengthening exchanges and cooperation, said Liang.

China was a key backer of the North during the Korean War of 1950-57, and remains a major supplier of aid, food and oil.

Liang has been on a five-day visit to the North since Sunday.

Following from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit there early in October, the trip is the latest sign that Beijing wants to bolster bilateral ties with Pyongyang despite the international sanctions aimed at North Korea's nuclear weapons development.

Wen was greeted with fanfare by the North's usually reclusive top leader, Kim Jong-il. Since then, China's president Hu Jintao has also invited Kim to visit.

China is opposed tp North Korea's atomic weapons ambitions, which in May produced the country's second-ever nuclear test. Beijing responded by backing sanctions against North Korea authorised by the United Nations Security Council.
Since 2003, China has hosted six-party talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear arms plans in return for aid and energy. Those talks have stalled under complaints from Pyongyang.

Recent conciliatory words from the North, and a scheduled visit by a U.S. envoy next month, have revived some hopes for renewed negotiations.

The talks bring together North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.

But China fears tough sanctions on the North could simply alienate and rile that country's wary leaders, and could stoke instability and risk pushing a wave of refugees across the border into northeast China.

Such fears have prompted China's leaders to place fresh emphasis on nurturing stronger bilateral ties with the North, analysts have said.

Liang reiterated the Chinese government's principles and positions on issues concerning the Korean Peninsula, the Xinhua report said, without directly mentioning the nuclear dispute.

(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills and Paul Tait)