BEIJING - Chinese President Hu Jintao told a senior North Korean official on Wednesday that ties between the two nations have reached a new level of goodwill, avoiding direct mention of the North's nuclear dispute in his public praise.

Hu lauded relations between the two communist neighbors while meeting Choe Thae-bok, a visiting senior official in the North's ruling Workers' Party, the China News Service said.

Choe is considered a confidante of Kim Jong-il, the country's reclusive top leader.

Kim gave an extravagant welcome to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao when he visited the North in early October to mark 60 years of official ties.

Hu said the year of anniversary celebrations had further deepened traditional friendship and expanded mutually beneficial cooperation, raising neighborly friendship between China and North Korea to a new level, said the report.

Reports of the meeting from the official China News Service and state television, however, did not directly mention the North's disputed nuclear weapons program, which has drawn sanctions from the United Nations backed by China.

After North Korea held its second ever nuclear test in May, China endorsed fresh sanctions.

Hu said both countries should make shared efforts to protect regional peace and security, the reports said.

The absence of the nuclear topic from Hu's published remarks appeared to underscore Beijing's focus on nurturing stronger bilateral ties with Pyongyang, even as it seeks to coax the North back to nuclear disarmament talks.

Beijing objects to Pyongyang developing atomic weapons. But it also says harsh sanctions on the North would merely stoke hostility, and it also fears that political turmoil in the North could unleash a surge of refugees into China.

During his rare visit this month to the North, Chinese Premier Wen gave public support to leader Kim, who in turn signaled his state could return to six-way disarmament-for-aid nuclear talks his government once pronounced dead.

In the past few days, North Korea also sent one of its top envoys on a rare trip to the United States, where he has met a U.S. diplomat in a meeting analysts said could help revive the dormant six-party talks.

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

Choe is secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party who has been by leader Kim's side in recent months for many of his inspections tours of the country, according to the North's official media.

(Additional reporting by Jon Herkovitz in Seoul; Editing by Nick Macfie)