Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Sunday held discussions with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il amidst increasing expectations of a breakthrough in the impasse over talks regarding the country’s controversial nuclear programme.

Mr. Wen’s three-day visit to Pyongyang follows a commitment made by the North Korean leader a fortnight ago to return to the negotiating table to discuss ending the country’s nuclear programme. North Korea in April quit the Six-Party Talks mechanism, set up to address tensions in the region, following international criticism over a rocket launch.

The Chinese Premier’s visit, the most high-level from Beijing since President Hu Jintao's in 2005, is officially labelled as a “goodwill visit” to mark 60 years of diplomatic relations between the countries. But the nuclear issue is expected to be the main agenda, according to media reports in China and South Korea. “Bilateral relations and other issues of common concern” would be discussed, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said.

Tension in the region has escalated in recent months after North Korea conducted a nuclear test in May, defying United Nations sanctions. Economic and military sanctions have been further expanded since, but seem to have achieved little with the country conducting a series of missile tests in July.

Quoting unnamed officials in Beijing, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that “an important announcement” possibly indicating North Korea’s willingness to revive the Six-Party Talks was expected in coming days.

The talks were set up in 2003 by China, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia to peacefully resolve the tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Opinion in China is divided on whether this visit might achieve a breakthrough. Many analysts were cautious, arguing that without a deal involving the U.S. progress would be hard to achieve.

“The key to making actual progress lies with improved ties between the North and the U.S.,” Sun Zhe, director of the Centre for U.S.-China Relations in Beijing’s Tsinghua University told the Global Times

newspaper. He said Pyongyang would not return to the negotiating table "without an initiative by Washington."

Prospects of such a deal remain far from certain. Last week, a commentary by an official State newspaper in Pyongyang said “the U.S was the country’s biggest threat” and its “anti-North Korea policies had not changed in the slightest.”

Mr. Wen’s Sunday visit is the first trip to Pyongyang by a Chinese Premier since Li Peng’s in 1991. The two countries have had a historically close relationship, and North Korea remains highly dependent on China for both financial aid and food supplies.

But the frequency of visits has decreased in recent years along with China’s widening global role. Beijing has found itself walking a diplomatic tightrope balancing its close relationship with North Korea and its increasingly important relationship with the U.S. and Japan, said Huang Jing, a leading expert on North Asian strategic issues at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, in a interview with The Hindu following North Korea’s recent tests.

“Beijing has all kinds of dilemmas,” Mr. Huang said.

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