SEOUL - China's prime minister will visit reclusive North Korea early next week for a trip that could help revive talks with global powers stalled for nearly a year on ending Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.
Analysts said China, the closest destitute North Korea has to a major ally, would not send such a high profile visitor unless it had won some assurance from Pyongyang that could ease tension over the nuclear standoff.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will pay an official goodwill visit to North Korea from October 4 to 6, the North's KCNA news agency said in a one sentence dispatch on Monday.
China's Foreign Ministry confirmed the trip, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two nations.
The South's Yonhap news agency quoted diplomatic sources in Beijing as saying there could be an announcement during Wen's visit about the dormant six-country, disarmament-for-aid talks hosted by Beijing.
There probably will be significant talks between Wen and leader Kim Jong-il not only on their relations, but of events over the Korean peninsula and nuclear arms, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the South's University of North Korean Studies.
The sputtering talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States ground to a halt about a year ago, with Pyongyang saying it would boycott the sessions until Washington dropped its hostile attitude.
The nuclear talks were high on the agenda when the foreign ministers from China, Japan and South Korea met on Monday in Shanghai. Leaders of the three are expected to meet on October 10.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Steinberg said in Kuala Lumpur that Washington appreciates China for sending a very clear message to North Korea that there is unanimity among all countries in the region about the need for them to return to the six-party talks and to resume the path of denuclearisation.
KIM JONG-IL'S NUCLEAR PLEDGE
Earlier this month, Kim Jong-il told a visiting envoy from China that he would work to end his state's nuclear arms programme through multilateral talks.
Statements from Kim almost always lead to action and analysts said he likely wants a return to some form of discussions. They also expect Pyongyang will hold true to form by making denuclearisation pledges and not meeting them.
North Korea in recent months has reached out to the international community after being hit with U.N. sanctions for a nuclear test in May. The sanctions were aimed at cutting off the vital flow of hard currency from the North's arms sales.
But North Korea has stoked tension by saying it was separating more plutonium from spent nuclear fuel and making progress on uranium enrichment, which could give it another route towards making nuclear bombs.
The North also revised its constitution in recent months to eliminate communism as a guiding ideology, while elevating Kim's principle of putting the military first as the main pillar of his rule.
WARMING Towards SOUTH
While Pyongyang has been sending out conflicting signals, it has been steadily improving ties with the South, which once provided aid equal to about five percent of the North's economy.
President Lee Myung-bak, who took office in February 2008, angered the North by ending massive rice aid and other unconditional handouts, saying Seoul would tie its largess to disarmament steps its neighbour makes.
In a move that has eased tensions among the rival Koreas, the North allowed the resumption of reunions on the weekend for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
Pyongyang had suspended the highly emotional meetings after Lee was elected.
North Korea indicated it was expecting a show of goodwill from the South for restarting the reunions, which the head of the South's spy agency reportedly said was likely a request to resume massive food aid.
(Additional reporting by Christine Kim in Seoul, Razak Ahmad in Kuala Lumpur and Edmund Klamann in Shanghai; editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Dean Yates)