By John Ruwitch
BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il has told Beijing he is ready to scrap his nuclear arms programs if the United States changes what he called its hostile attitude, a South Korean newspaper said on Tuesday.
Kim slipped unannounced into Beijing on Monday and held his first talks with Chinese President and Communist Party chief Hu Jintao on the crisis over communist North Korea's nuclear ambitions and its threadbare economy.
His rare overseas trip, expected to last up to four days, comes a week after Vice President Dick Cheney visited China with new evidence of the North's possession of nuclear arms and warning that time was running out to resolve the stalemate.
The purpose of Kim's visit and the significance of its timing were not immediately clear, but the reclusive leader of the world's only communist dynasty may be eager to win Beijing's support for his fledgling market reforms and nuclear position.
Asked if the United States had used the opportunity to pass a message to Kim, a U.S. embassy spokeswoman was careful, saying only: "China knows our position well and this was reaffirmed during Vice President Cheney's visit to China."
Ending the nuclear crisis is critical to unlocking outside aid to the ailing and isolated North Korean economy, including from China, the North's closest friend and host to two rounds of inconclusive six-party talks aimed at breaking the impasse.
However, Kim may calculate that an arsenal of nuclear weapons is the only way to guarantee the survival of his government, giving him leverage with the United States as he presses for security guarantees to prevent any possible U.S. invasion.
"Kim reportedly explained the reasons behind the nuclear weapons to Hu and added that North Korea is willing to give up nuclear developments if the United States changes its hostile attitude," the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's biggest daily, said.
That is the secretive North's standard position.
China had agreed to give the North energy and food aid, it said. Beijing may be eager to offer rewards to ensure Pyongyang does not declare itself a nuclear state and has long insisted on a peaceful resolution to a crisis that has enraged Washington and triggered nervousness among neighbors.
The reclusive Kim had confirmed Pyongyang's willingness to settle the nuclear crisis at the next round of six-party talks that include the two Koreas, China, Russia, the United States and Japan, the newspaper quoted its source as saying.
In the last round of talks in February, they agreed to meet again before mid-year and to start working-level talks before that to discuss the dispute. No progress has been reported since.
Chinese and North Korean media were silent on the visit, Kim's first to his giant neighbor in three years.
An Asian diplomat in Beijing said rumors about Kim's visit included the possibility he was seeking Chinese backing for a major announcement or policy shift.
The timing, just days after Cheney came to town, may not be a coincidence.
"Some speculated reasons are that maybe the Chinese side delivered a message from the U.S. on the nuclear issue. Maybe North Korea feels it's the right time to deal with this issue," said the Asian diplomat.
"The other speculation is that North Korea is very much eager to pursue its economic reform and they need the full support of Chinese leaders," the diplomat said.
Kim is expected to meet his counterpart, Chinese military chief and former president Jiang Zemin, and to do some sightseeing, a Chinese source familiar with the visit told Reuters on Monday.
Kim was also likely tour a Beijing high-tech zone dubbed "China's Silicon Valley," the South's Yonhap news agency said.
SOUTHERN MEDIA ABUZZ
South Korean media was abuzz with news of Kim's trip.
The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper cited rumors North Korea would soon make an announcement that could signal a breakthrough in resolving the crisis, which began in October 2002 when U.S. officials say Pyongyang disclosed it was working on a secret program to enrich uranium for weapons.
"Some even speculate that Kim might have told Hu that North Korea has shifted its position," the paper said.
The Korea Herald applauded China's efforts to try to close the gap between the United States, which has demanded complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantling of the North's nuclear programs, and North Korea.
Kim is also expected to meet Premier Wen Jiabao, who is at the helm of China's booming economy.
In 2001, Kim toured Shanghai and was reportedly impressed with the glitz of China's financial hub. He later began to experiment with market reforms. (Additional reporting by Martin Nesirky in Seoul)