By Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il told a visiting Chinese envoy he will work to end his country's nuclear arms program through multilateral talks in an apparent breakthrough, but similar vows in the past have not been met with action.
Some analysts said the North has managed to raise the stakes in the long-running and often deadlocked nuclear diplomacy after its second atomic test this year and may be seeking a new form of negotiations that include direct talks with the United States.
North Korea has made conciliatory moves in recent weeks, including the release of U.S. journalists it had held for illegal entry, in what analysts said was a way to replenish its coffers after it had been hit by sanctions for nuclear and missile tests.
"Kim Jong-il ... said North Korea will continue adhering toward the goal of denuclearization ... and is willing to resolve the relevant problems through bilateral and multilateral talks," China's Xinhua news agency said.
Regional powers have been trying to get the North back to six-way talks on ending its nuclear ambitions in return for aid and diplomatic rewards, but Pyongyang has refused to return to the table and instead sought direct negotiations with Washington.
Despite the conciliatory gestures toward the South and the United States, it has kept up with more nuclear threats including a pledge to produce highly enriched uranium which would give it a new way to make nuclear arms.
The meeting between Kim and Dai Bingguo, a senior Chinese diplomat, also offered a sign of warming ties between the two countries, which had been strained after Beijing backed U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang for its second nuclear test in May.
Dai handed Kim a letter from Chinese President Hu Jintao, North Korea's KCNA and Xinhua news agencies said.
"Realizing the goal of denuclearization of the peninsula, and protecting and encouraging the peace, stability and development of the peninsula and northeast Asia is our consistent purpose," Hu said in the letter.
What lies next is for regional powers involved in the nuclear dialogue to find a mutually acceptable format of talks but some analysts were skeptical about whether Kim's fresh pledge would translate to tangible progress.
North Korea has often promised action to rein in its nuclear program, only to change its mind within days or weeks.
"North Korea will be keeping up the pressure on its part in order to raise the stakes," said Yang Moo-jin of University of North Korea Studies. "But especially now that Kim Jong-il has pledged to talk, the prospects are not too bad."
But Kenneth Boutin of Deakin University in Australia said: "There is a growing body of thought that the North Korean leadership has no intention of abandoning its nuclear weapons program, and it may well turn out to be the case that their understanding of 'denuclearization' is far different from ours."
The trip by Dai is seen as a prelude to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to North Korea officially to mark an anniversary of the two countries' alliance. South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said Wen's visit was likely in early October.
Yu said in unusually bold comments that the prime target of North Korea's nuclear arsenal was South Korea and the reclusive communist state was still set on taking over its affluent neighbor by force.
"North Korea's development of nuclear weapons, its nuclear armament, is targeted at the South where freedom and democracy are upheld, economic growth is pursued and where the people are allowed to live in comfort," Yu told a forum of business leaders.
"What the North is pursuing, before and after the Korean War and to this day, is communist unification. And the development of nuclear weapons is a tool for that."
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing and Jeremy Laurence in Singapore; Editing by Nick Macfie)