Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived Sunday in North Korea on a highly anticipated state visit amid signs the North may be willing to restart dialogue over its nuclear programs following months of resistance.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il greeted Wen at Pyongyang's airport, another indication that Kim remains firmly in charge despite recent reports of failing health.
Footage provided by Associated Press Television News showed the two presiding over a welcoming ceremony, with Kim wearing his trademark sunglasses and brown leisure suit. Wen was then shown leaving in a limousine motorcade, while a crowd of North Korean greeters shouted slogans.
China is the most important source of economic aid and diplomatic support for the reclusive communist regime in Pyongyang, and has hosted stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks that also involve the US, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
Kim has reportedly expressed a willingness to engage in "bilateral and multilateral talks," although it's unclear if that indicates a willingness to rejoin the six-nation discussions.
Wen is leading a delegation that includes Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei - China's top envoy on North Korean issues - along with a top general, Liu Zhenqi, and other high-ranking officials.
China's Foreign Ministry has said Wen will meet with top North Korean leaders and attend events commemorating 60 years of diplomatic ties.
North Korean state media on Sunday said Wen's visit illustrates the importance China places on its ties with the North, a reflection of Pyongyang's attempts to establish some form of face-saving parity in its dealings with its giant neighbor and chief ally.
"Respectable comrade Wen Jiabao's visit to our country this time has a huge meaning in consideration of its historical timing and political significance," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in an editorial.
The trip "also clearly shows the Chinese party and government think much of China-North Korea friendship," the paper said.
Wen's three-day visit is being scrutinized for any further indication that North Korea is willing to re-engage with its negotiating partners after boycotting talks for months while threatening nuclear war and conducting nuclear and missile tests.
In recent weeks, the North has made overtures to China, the US and South Korea, most recently allowing meetings of family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
Such moves come as Washington is applying increasing economic pressure on the North's foreign trade, targeting private banks that might have North Korean ties. US officials hope to block money that could be used for missiles and nuclear bombs and, ultimately, to drive North Korea back to disarmament talks.
The US administration said last month it and its top Asian allies had agreed that direct US-North Korean talks may be the best way to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.
But the officials also suggested that China needs to lay more groundwork before President Barack Obama would decide to send his special North Korea envoy, Stephen Bosworth, to Pyongyang.
Under the six-nation framework, North Korea pledged in September 2005 to dismantle its nuclear programs in exchange for pledges of energy assistance and diplomatic concessions.
Progress has been bumpy, and North Korea walked away from the talks entirely in April to protest world criticism of a rocket launch.