China urged ally North Korea to improve its strained ties with longtime foes the United States and South Korea, state media reported Monday, as U.S. and North Korean diplomats began talks about restarting negotiations on the North's nuclear programs.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told visiting Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang that North Korea hopes the six-party talks on the country's nuclear issue "should be restarted as soon as possible," China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Neither Xinhua nor the North's official Korean Central News Agency elaborated on their meeting.
For his part, Li told North Korean Premier Choe Yong Rim on Sunday that improving ties with the U.S. and South Korea would promote stability in the region, Xinhua reported.
Li's message seemed intended to further diplomacy on North Korea's nuclear program that is already under way and to enhance China's role in it. Li's three-day trip to North Korea will be followed immediately by a two-day visit to South Korea, underscoring Beijing's good ties with both Koreas and its desire to revive the stalled six-nation disarmament negotiations.
U.S. and North Korean diplomats are meeting in Geneva on Monday and Tuesday to talk about restarting the negotiations, which also include South Korea, Japan, Russia and China. North Korea walked out of the talks in 2009 _ and exploded a second nuclear test device _ but now wants to re-engage.
Li told the North Korean premier that China supports North Korean efforts "to take the right direction for engagement and dialogues, resume the six-party talks at an early date," Xinhua reported.
Li also met Kim Yong Nam, the head of the North's parliament, on Monday, and said Beijing supported the North's dialogue with the U.S. and the improvement of relations between the two Koreas, according to Xinhua.
China has for years urged North Korea to refrain from ratcheting up tensions and to undertake serious reforms to strengthen an anemic economy that is failing to meet the basic needs of its people. The visit of the Chinese vice premier is highlighting North Korea's growing dependence on China.
Ahead of Li's arrival Sunday, Xinhua reported that China-North Korean trade rose 87 percent in the first seven months of the year from a year earlier to $3.1 billion.
North Korea relies heavily on China for food and fuel aid and many consumer products. Chinese companies are the main investors in North Korean mining, and the sides recently signed agreements on road building and on jointly developing an industrial park on an island near the Chinese city of Dandong.
"The economic and trade cooperation between the two countries has shown great potential, with bilateral trade and investment volume reaching new highs," Xinhua said.
Trade between China and North Korea is still dwarfed by commerce between China and South Korea, which is projected to hit about $250 billion in 2011.