Signaling a diplomatic coup for Beijing, the grinning face of North Korea's reclusive leader appeared on newspapers across China yesterday after Pyongyang agreed "in principle" to rejoin talks over its disputed nuclear program.
The two countries announced Thursday night their agreement that six-nation talks, begun in Beijing in August, should continue.
But North Korea made sure the announcement called for "a package solution based on the principle of simultaneous actions" -- a phrase apparently meaning Pyong-yang would only back down on the issue if Washington does too, at the same time.
US officials demand that the North immediately shut down its nuclear program and allow inspections. Pyongyang says no way, unless Washington offers a written nonaggression treaty and diplomatic ties, and restores millions of dollars in aid.
At the August meeting in Bei-jing, the two Koreas, China, the US, Japan and Russia had agreed to convene again, a commitment that Pyongyang quickly scrapped and scorned. It had since gone back and forth about whether it would join future meetings.
Thursday's mini-breakthrough, though subject to the diplomatic machinations of Pyongyang and Washington, is nonetheless a prestigious moment for China in its efforts to become a respected diplomatic player.
It came during a rare visit to the North by a top Chinese leader.
National People's Congress chief Wu Bangguo (吳邦國), the Chinese Communist Party's No. 2 man, met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in talks that China's state-controlled media showed as all happiness and handshakes.
"Both sides agreed in principle that the six-way talks should continue," China Central Television said.
After announcements in Chinese and North Korean official media, China trumpeted its accomplishment yesterday by festooning news-papers with a picture of Wu and Kim, their hands clasped, facing each other with wide grins as other officials looked on approvingly.
"DPRK shows resolve on nuclear talks," the China Daily said, using the initials for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The photos and headlines show China's pleasure with the development, and signal its approval to Kim, but also could be aimed at locking North Korea into its position.
While couched in tentative language, the North's latest statement could be considered more binding because it was made publicly alongside China -- its last major ally, and one it doesn't want to alienate.
No time frame was given for talks, and it was not immediately clear what the next step would be.
The US welcomed the reports, saying the "multiparty process" offers the best hope of getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said North Korea would return to any six-country talks knowing it had less maneuvering room.
"When North Koreans come to multiparty talks, they look across the table at a united front of nations opposed to their own nuclear armament. And the North Koreans know that a strategy of divide and conquer is no longer an option," Rice said Thursday in New York.
"Today, all of us are working together to show North Korea that its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons will only bring further isolation," Rice said.
The North is believed already to have one or two atomic bombs, and recently said it extracted plutonium from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods to build more.