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North Korea says willing to take China's advice to start talks

By Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee

BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea is willing to take China's advice and enter into talks, Chinese state television cited an envoy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as saying, following weeks of tension on the Korean peninsula after the North's latest nuclear test.

However, that prospect seems unlikely as North Korea has repeatedly said it will not abandon nuclear weapons while the United States insists North Korea must take meaningful steps on denuclearization before there can be talks.

The visit to Beijing by Choe Ryong-hae, a top North Korean military officer, is the most high-level contact between North Korea and China in about six months.

Ties have been hurt between the two supposed allies by the North's third nuclear test in February, despite China's disapproval, and by China agreeing to U.N. sanctions on the North in response and starting to put a squeeze on North Korean banks.

China was also alarmed by North Korea's threats this year to wage nuclear war on South Korea and the United States in retaliation for the sanctions, fearing any conflict would inevitable have disastrous consequences for China.

Choe told Liu Yunshan, the Chinese Communist Party's fifth-ranked leader, that Kim had sent him to China "to improve, consolidate and develop ties between China and North Korea".

Choe was accompanied by a high-powered delegation on a trip that appeared to be a bid by North Korea to mend frayed relations with its most important economic and diplomatic backer.

"North Korea lauds China's enormous efforts to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and push for a return to talks and consultations for the problems of the Korean peninsula, and is willing to accept China's suggestion to have talks with all parties," Choe told the Chinese official, according to China's state broadcaster CCTV.

Liu, who is also China's propaganda tsar, told the North Korean envoy that "peace and stability on the Korean peninsula accords with the interests of all countries in the region".

"We hope that all sides uphold the aim of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, maintain peace and stability and the using of dialogue and consultation to resolve problems, take practical steps to ameliorate the tense situation ... to restart six party talks as soon as possible and work hard for long-lasting peace and stability in northeast Asia and on the Korean peninsula."

"CONCENTRATE ON THE ECONOMY"

China has repeatedly urged North Korea to return to the so-called six party talks process, aimed at denuclearization.

The United States and its allies believe the North violated a 2005 aid-for-denuclearization deal by conducting a nuclear test in 2006 and pursuing a uranium enrichment program that would give it a second path to a nuclear weapon in addition to its plutonium-based program.

Six-party aid-for-disarmament talks, involving the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and host China, collapsed in 2008 when the North walked away from the deal.

Repeated attempts by China to get North Korea to embark upon Chinese-style economic reforms and shift attention away from the military and bellicose actions have made little apparent progress.

North Korea's official KCNA news agency said Choe had been taken to a Beijing economic zone, much in the same way China used to take late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to see modern Chinese factories on his swings through the world's second-largest economy.

"North Korea hopes to concentrate on the economy and improve people's livelihoods and is willing to create a peaceful foreign environment," Choe told Liu.

Choe's comments came on the second day of his trip to China. He has also met Wang Jiarui, head of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's International Department, a frequent conduit for communication between the two sides.

Choe is one of the tight coterie of officials around Kim Jong-un, who has been in power for just over a year after succeeding his father, Kim Jong-il.

The envoy is a long-time political administrator and was surprisingly made a vice marshal in the army last year despite having no military background.

(Additional reporting by Langi Chiang; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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