In a significant U-turn, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il on Friday told Chinese officials his country would now be willing to engage in multilateral talks on its controversial nuclear weapons programme.

Analysts said the announcement could now pave the way towards talks to bring about denuclearisation on the tense Korean peninsula. But officials in South Korea reacted cautiously to the news, suggesting the move might only be directed towards reducing the impact of sanctions on North Korea and did not necessarily reflect an intention to disarm.

North Korea in April broke away from the Six-Party Talks mechanism set up to bring about denuclearisation and deescalate tensions in North-East Asia. North Korea faces a number of United Nations sanctions which were recently expanded after the country conducted a nuclear test and a string of missile tests in May.

Mr. Kim’s Friday announcement is the clearest indication since April that North Korea might now be willing to return to the negotiating table of the Six-Party Talks to discuss its nuclear programme.

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s special envoy Dai Bingguo met Mr. Kim in Pyongyang on Friday, conveying China’s desire to revive the talks which were set up in 2003 along with the United States, Japan, Russia and South Korea. China’s official Xinhua news agency reported the North Korean leader told Mr. Dai that he “would like to solve relevant issues through bilateral and multilateral talks.”

The country abandoned the talks in April following severe criticism from the U.N. after the launch of a rocket, which North Korean officials said was a communications satellite.

Recent months have seen an escalation of tension in the region, with North Korea conducting a second nuclear test in May in defiance of U.N. sanctions. The U.N. Security Council subsequently expanded sanctions against the country, calling for an arms embargo, freezing financial transactions and tighter inspections on cargo.

South Korean officials have cautiously reacted to North Korea’s new overtures, describing them as part of a conciliatory strategy aimed only at reducing sanctions and without real intent to dismantle a growing weapons programme.

“It appears to be true that North Korea is fairly embarrassed because of greater than expected real effects of the sanctions,” said South Korean President Lee Myung Bak. “North Korea is using some conciliatory strategy toward the United States, South Korea and Japan in order to get out of this crisis, but for now, North Korea is not showing any sincerity or sign that it will give up nuclear weapons.”

Last month, North Korea said it was willing to hold bilateral talks with the U.S., but American officials said negotiations would only take place through the Six Party Talks framework.

Part of the reason for South Korea’s scepticism of its neighbour’s intentions is that only a month before its offer for talks, the country conducted seven missile tests, seen as an act of provocation by South Korea.

And only earlier this month, North Korean officials said the country’s nuclear programme, which has already developed plutonium nuclear devices, had reached the final phase of uranium enrichment which would now give the country another way of making more nuclear bombs.

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