North Korean leader, Chinese envoy meet amid nuclear standoff

SEOUL, South Korea -- China's critical role in the nuclear standoff with North Korea was evident Tuesday, with a Chinese envoy reportedly urging the North's leader to accept U.S.-proposed talks aimed at resolving the crisis.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met an envoy of Chinese President Hu Jintao on Monday amid conflicting reports about whether Pyongyang has reprocessed spent nuclear fuel rods, a step toward making atomic bombs.

The envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo, gave Kim a letter from the Chinese president, according to KNCA, North Korea's state-run news agency. The contents were not disclosed.

Dai had met Kang Sok Ju, a North Korean deputy foreign minister, on Saturday and the two "had an in-depth exchanges of views on the nuclear issue between (North Korea) and the U.S. and international issues of mutual concern," KCNA said.

Pivotal to negotiations

China's role is pivotal because it exerts considerable leverage over the North as a major source of food and fuel to its impoverished neighbor. At the same time, China is sharply critical of U.S. proposals for economic and political pressure on North Korea.

Japanese national daily Asahi Shimbun reported Tuesday that Dai urged Kim to accept U.S.-proposed multilateral talks including Japan, South Korea and China to resolve the nuclear standoff.

The North Korean leader opposed Japan's participation, but was open to having South Korea join in, the newspaper said, citing unnamed Chinese sources. China arranged three-way talks between itself, Washington and Pyongyang in Beijing in April.

Pyongyang wants one-on-one talks with Washington, which it regards as the chief threat to its existence. But it recently said it might agree to multilateral talks after direct talks with the United States.

China seeks a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, but does not want the destabilization of North Korea, which could lead to conflict, a flood of refugees across its border and more U.S. influence in the region.

The People's Daily, the main newspaper of China's ruling Communist Party, criticized U.S. proposals for economic pressure on North Korea and a U.N. resolution denouncing Pyongyang.

"Given the serious nature of this issue and the possible disastrous consequences, a peaceful settlement through diplomatic channels is still perceived as the best option," the paper said in a commentary on its Web site.

Experts have said Pyongyang could extract enough weapons-grade plutonium to make several atomic bombs by reprocessing its pool of 8,000 spent rods. U.S. officials believe the North already has one or two nuclear bombs.

The New York Times said that North Korea told U.S. officials last week that it has produced enough plutonium to make a half-dozen nuclear bombs and intends to turn the material into weapons. But American intelligence agencies have little evidence to support the North's nuclear claim, the newspaper said in its Tuesday edition.

Last week, Seoul's intelligence chief said Pyongyang may have reprocessed a small number of its 8,000 rods.

The nuclear standoff flared last October when U.S. officials said Pyongyang admitted having a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 pact with Washington.

The United States and its allies suspended fuel shipments promised under the 1994 deal, and Pyongyang retaliated by expelling U.N. monitors, restarting facilities capable of making fuel for nuclear bombs and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.