BEIJING (Reuters) - China wants North Korea to deepen talks with South Korea and the United States in the hope of soon restarting nuclear negotiations, the visiting Chinese vice premier told his North Korean counterpart, state media reported on Monday.
Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang, however, also told the North's Premier Choe Yong-rim that Beijing would stay a firm ally of Pyongyang, which is contending with food shortages, international isolation and ensuring a smooth succession.
Li, 56, is the favorite to become premier from early 2013, when Wen Jiabao will step down.
Pyongyang has stirred regional tensions with its nuclear arms ambitions, missile tests and deadly confrontations across the divided peninsula last year. But recently it has reached out to Seoul and Washington to ease tensions, and will hold talks with U.S. officials in Geneva on Monday.
"China supports North Korea maintaining a correct focus on engagement and dialogue," Li told Choe on Sunday evening, according to China's official Xinhua news agency.
It was in China and other countries' interests for Pyongyang to improve ties with Seoul and Washington, avoiding instability on the peninsula, said Li.
North Korea should seek "early outcomes from the dialogue, and restarting six-party talks as soon as possible to advance the denuclearization of the (Korean) peninsula," he added.
The intermittent six-party talks bring together China, Japan, Russia, both Koreas and the United States. They reached an agreement in September 2005 under which the North agreed to abandon its nuclear programs in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives to be provided by other parties.
Beijing has stood by the North, which it regards as a brittle but vital bulwark against the influence of the United States and its allies. But China has also tried to build ties with South Korea, a much bigger trade partner, and to revive the talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament.
The talks and the agreement were a diplomatic trophy for Beijing. But North Korea walked out of the negotiations more than two years ago after the United Nations imposed fresh sanctions for a long-range missile test. The following month it conducted a second nuclear test.
Ahead of the talks in Geneva, U.S. officials have said North Korea must make real steps to heal ties with South Korea and show it is sincere about nuclear disarmament before the six-party talks can resume.
During his three-day visit to North Korea that began on Sunday, Li is being accompanied by senior diplomats and economic officials, including Chen Yuan, chairman of China Development Bank.
China fears that the North's frayed and isolated economy could fuel instability as its leader Kim Jong-il lays the ground for a leadership succession in the dynastic state, and Li pressed Beijing's case for stronger trade ties.
Both sides should "maintain the steady and rapid growth of bilateral trade, promoting key cooperative projects in a positive and steady-handed way," Li told Choe.
China has sought to draw North Korea closer with economic incentives, and bilateral trade between the two countries grew to $3.1 billion in the first seven months of 2011, an 87 percent increase from the same period last year, according to Chinese customs data.
After visiting the North, Li will go to South Korea from Wednesday for two days.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Paul Tait)