Seoul: A senior Chinese Communist Party official will visit Pyongyang next week in what appears to be a move to press North Korea to return to stalled nuclear disarmament talks, a South Korean news agency said on Friday.
The North said separately it was releasing a US activist it had held since December, clearing an obstacle between Pyongyang and its most important dialogue partner, Washington, that could have harmed negotiations.
The moves comes as pressure is mounting on North Korea to end its year-long boycott of international nuclear talks and win rewards that can prop up its broken economy.
Communist Party international affairs chief Wang Jiarui is slated to make the visit, a diplomatic source in Beijing told Yonhap news. He met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il last year and received a denuclearisation pledge.
China, the destitute North`s biggest benefactor, is seen as having the most influence on the reclusive state. Kim Jong-il told the Chinese Premier in October that he could return to the nuclear talks if conditions were right.
UN sanctions imposed after the North`s nuclear test last year have dealt a blow to its wobbly economy, and a botched currency reform measure undertaken late last year deepened economic woes.
"This will be a very difficult year, a year of crisis for North," said Cho Min, of the Korea Institute of National Unification. "The visit may turn out to be the only way to get the urgent transfusion."
Robert Park, 28, walked over the frozen Tumen river from China and into North Korea on Christmas Day on a mission to raise awareness about Pyongyang`s human rights abuses, other activists who helped him said.
Park said in Seoul ahead of the crossing it was his duty as a Christian to enter North Korea and he was willing to die. He said he was carrying a letter calling on leader Kim Jong-il to release those in brutal political camps and also to step down.
The North`s official KCNA news agency said Park had confessed to illegally entering the state, and that he had changed his mind about North Korea after receiving kind treatment.
"What I have seen and heard in the DPRK convinced me that I misunderstood it. So I seriously repented of the wrong I committed, taken in by the West`s false propaganda," KCNA quoted Park as saying.
Defectors from the North say the state often uses torture to extract confessions.
North Korea said in late January that it was holding a second American for illegal entry. The man has not been identified.