Beijing: North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il told Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang that a stalled 2005 deal should be the basis for fresh talks about the North's nuclear program, Chinese media reported, leaving unanswered the key question of uranium enrichment.
The United States and South Korea insist that the North must immediately halt its uranium enrichment program, which it unveiled last year, as a precursor to restart talks that offer economic aid in return for denuclearization.
Kim's latest offer of fresh nuclear negotiations came as the United States said it had narrowed differences with North Korea on issues standing in the way of a new round of multilateral nuclear talks.
In his meeting with Li, Kim repeated that North Korea was willing to return to the six-party talks -- also involving Russia and Japan -- that it walked out of more than two years ago.
But his published comments did not address North Korea's uranium enrichment activities, a key obstacle to talks.
"Kim said the DPRK hopes the six-party talks should be restarted as soon as possible," China's Xinhua news agency said in a report on Tuesday of the meeting between Kim and Li in North Korea on Monday night.
The DPRK is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- the North's official name.
"All the six parties should fully implement the September 19 joint statement, signed by them in 2005 in Beijing, on the principle of simultaneous action," Kim said, according to Xinhua.
Under the 2005 agreement, the North agreed to abandon its nuclear programs in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives to be provided by the other parties involved in the negotiations.
But the embryonic agreement, which was a diplomatic triumph for China, was never implemented.
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.
The North's uranium enrichment program, which opens a second route to make an atomic bomb along with its plutonium program, is not specifically referred to in the 2005 agreement.
However, South Korea and the United States argue uranium enrichment falls under the broader term "existing nuclear programs," which the 2005 deal says must be stopped.
North Korea states it is willing to discuss the issue once the six-party talks resume, but South Korea and the United States say there will be no talks until uranium enrichment is stopped, and verified by international nuclear inspectors.
The United States, South Korea and their allies have been skeptical of North Korea's recent assertions that it stands ready to return to the six-party talks, saying it has reneged on past disarmament pledges.
China has not taken a firm stance on the enrichment issue. At a briefing in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu would not say whether Li raised it in Pyongyang.
"As for the issue of North Korean uranium enrichment, this should be appropriately resolved through discussions under the framework of the six-party talks," said Jiang.
The North says its uranium enrichment program is designed to produce power, and argues that the 2005 agreement respects its right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
In Geneva, Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, said the two sides "narrowed some differences but we still have differences that we have to resolve."
Throughout the regional turbulence, Beijing has stood by its ally, North Korea, which it sees as a buffer against the influence of the United States and its allies. But China has also tried to preserve ties with South Korea, and to revive the stalled talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament.
Li, 56, is the favorite to become premier from early 2013, when Wen Jiabao will step down. He will visit South Korea after his trip to the North.
First Published: Tuesday, October 25, 2011, 18:46