China touts six-party talks as only "real" way to solve nuclear crisis to visiting North Korean leader

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told his North Korean counterpart on Tuesday that six-nation disarmament talks were the best way to resolve the dispute over its nuclear programs, a day after Pyongyang claimed to have expanded its nuclear arsenal.

Premier Pak Pong Ju began a six-day visit to China in Beijing, where he was also to meet President Hu Jintao.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Wen told Pak that six-way talks were the "only real, pragmatic way to resolve the nuclear issue" and urged "flexibility, practicality and patience."

According to Liu, Pak responded by saying that Pyongyang "does not oppose the six-party talks, nor has it given up on the six-party talks.

"If conditions are right in the future, North Korea is willing at any time to participate at the six-party talks," Liu quoted Pak as saying. Liu, who briefed reporters after the meeting, did not elaborate on what the right conditions would be.

Pak was scheduled to meet Hu on Wednesday.

The stakes were raised this week when the North announced that it had increased its nuclear arsenal to counter what it said was a military threat from the United States and rival South Korea.

While Pyongyang has frequently threatened to boost its nuclear deterrent in response to the perceived danger of U.S. invasion, the announcement Monday appears to be the first time it has claimed to have done so.

"We have taken a serious measure by increasing (the) nuclear arms arsenal in preparation for any invasion by enemies," said the North's Korean Central Broadcasting Station, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

The announcement echoed the North's declaration on Feb. 10 that it has nuclear weapons and will boycott any further talks aimed at ending its nuclear ambitions.

While visiting Beijing on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, suggested that the North might face sanctions.

"To the degree that a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula gets more difficult to achieve if the North does not (return to the talks), then of course we'll have to look at other options," Rice said.

Rice said she appealed for China to use its status as the North's main ally and aid donor to draw Pyongyang back to the talks, which also include South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Beijing insists it has little influence over the isolated Stalinist regime and has resisted U.S. appeals to pressure North Korea. China is believed to supply the North with up to one-third of its food and one-quarter of its energy.

Earlier Tuesday, Liu stressed that a peaceful resolution would be "in China's interest and other players in the East Asia region."

"The six-party talks are the best and most realistic vehicle to peacefully resolve this issue through dialogue," he said at a regular briefing. "The results achieved through previous rounds are hard-won and various parties should support the process."

China has organized three rounds of six-nation talks since the dispute flared in late 2002. Washington said Pyongyang admitted operating a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement that gave it oil and other aid for abandoning nuclear work.

Chinese officials have suggested direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang to break the impasse _ an option that Rice rejected, saying a resolution had to be crafted "in a multilateral context."

Analysts say the North's declaration last month that it has nuclear weapons might prompt China to force Pyongyang back into talks. But they say Beijing might be holding out for a U.S. overture to make the North return willingly.

Liu said China would continue to make its "due contribution" to the process but asked the other parties to create "favorable climates" for another round.

"The Chinese side will continue to play its role and I hope the various sides can play their part," he said.

Pak will is to visit Shanghai and Shenyang, an industrial city in China's northeast.

AUDRA ANG Associated Press

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