SEOUL - North Korea has been seeking a summit between the leaders of the rival Koreas, an official in Seoul said on Sunday, marking another step in its attempts to reach out to the world after being hit by U.N. sanctions.

The impoverished North has been stung by heavy rains that cut into its harvest and U.N. sanctions imposed after its nuclear test in May aimed at cutting off lucrative arms sales. It has, in recent months, made several gestures aimed at traditional foes the United States in South Korea.

They (North Koreans) have theoretically said a summit would be possible once the North Korea-South Korea dialogue has made some progress, said the official, who asked not to be identified.

The North indicated it wanted better ties with the South when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met its leader Kim Jong-il this month in Pyongyang, the official said.

Kim signaled to Wen his state was willing to end to its boycott of dormant international nuclear disarmament talks, but sought direct talks with Washington first.

The rival Koreas have had two summits that led to large amounts of aid flowing to the North, with pledges from the South's leaders to help rebuild their neighbor's broken economy.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, in office since February 2008, syas he is open for a summit provided it is tied to meaningful steps from Pyongyang to end its nuclear arms plans.

A senior U.S. defense official in Washington said in remarks released on Sunday: We've suddenly reached a charm phase with North Korea with Kim Jong-il inviting President Lee Myung-bak from the Republic of Korea to visit Pyongyang.

The North, which in the past few months agreed to talks with the South, had cut ties with Lee in anger at his halting of unconditional handouts and linking of aid to nuclear disarmament.

The South's assistance was once equal to about 5 percent of the North's annual economy. The two Koreas are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended with a cease fire and not a peace treaty.

North Korea, where agricultural mismanagement has created chronic food shortages, made a request at inter-Korean talks last week for Seoul to resume food aid put on hold after Lee took office.

The North has also mixed its gestures to better ties by flexing its military muscles this month with short-range missile launches and threats of a sea conflict with the South.

Analysts said the mercurial state wants to increase its bargaining leverage by showing it is ready to raise tension in the North Asia region, which is responsible for about one-sixth of the global economy.

(Editing by Ron Popeski)