- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

SEOUL — Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il held a rare meeting yesterday with China’s foreign minister in which the communist allies discussed the region’s nuclear dispute.

Beijing said the session was a “very important contact.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, who arrived Tuesday, is the first foreign minister from Beijing to visit North Korea in five years. The visit is seen as bolstering the push for a third round of six-nation talks on the North’s nuclear programs as efforts to organize working-level groups hang in limbo.

A second round of talks involving the United States, the two Koreas, China, Russia and Japan ended last month in Beijing without a major breakthrough.

As Pyongyang’s last major ally, China has taken on the role of host and coordinator of the meetings.

The Chinese diplomat and North Korean officials are expected to discuss a date for the crucial working-group meetings, which will seek to nail down details before the next full round of six-nation talks, sometime before July, said South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon.

South Korea has accused the North of delaying the working groups.

In Pyongyang, Mr. Li’s delegation toured a street market, laid flowers at a statue of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder and father of Mr. Kim, and met various North Korean dignitaries in a “warm atmosphere,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported.

At his meeting with Mr. Kim, who assumed control after his father died in 1994, Mr. Li presented greetings from Chinese President Hu Jintao, KCNA reported. Before Mr. Li departed for Pyongyang, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Kong Quan described the trip as a “very important contact between our two sides.”

In Hong Kong, a North Korea analyst said Pyongyang might skip the next round of nuclear talks because of the uncertainty caused by November’s presidential election in the United States.

“What are they going to do there? Now, is anybody going to strike a deal?” said Charles Pritchard, a former U.S. State Department official.

It is unlikely that President Bush will offer a deal before the election, while his Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, likely would start a direct dialogue with Pyongyang if he wins, Mr. Pritchard said.

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