NKorea's Kim meets Chinese official

North Koreans call Kim Jong Il the "Dear Leader" and he holds absolute power in the Stalinist regime. (Getty Images)
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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North Korea's Kim Jong Il gave the strongest indication yet that he has recovered from a stroke by turning up for talks with a Chinese envoy Friday.

Kim met with senior Communist Party official Wang Jiarui, state-run media in both countries reported - making him the first foreign dignitary known to see the reclusive North Korean leader since he reportedly suffered a stroke in August.

Kim told the envoy that Pyongyang is "dedicated to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and hoped to peacefully coexist with all sides and would not like to see tension in the peninsula," China's official Xinhua news agency said.

Analysts say Friday's meeting - just days after President Barack Obama took office - may be a way for Kim to show the new U.S. leader he is ready to meet with Washington for nuclear negotiations.

"The meeting appears to be aimed at telling Obama that Kim has no problem with his health and is well enough to meet with Obama's envoy," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.

After testing a nuclear bomb in 2006, North Korea agreed in a landmark 2007 accord with China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States that it would dismantle its nuclear programs in exchange for aid and political concessions.

The process has seen some progress, with Pyongyang shutting down and starting to disable its nuclear reactor. But the talks have been deadlocked since August over how to verify Pyongyang's past nuclear activities.

Obama said in his inauguration address Tuesday that he would work "with old friends and former foes" to lessen nuclear threats - a remark analysts say suggests he may seek direct contact with countries like North Korea and Iran.

In campaigning, Obama said he was open to meeting with Kim, if it helps advance the nuclear disarmament process.

Kim, who turns 67 next month, disappeared from public view last year, sparking concerns about his health when he missed a key North Korean anniversary in September. South Korean and U.S. officials said Kim suffered a stroke.

His health is of keen interest because he has not publicly named a successor. Kim inherited leadership of the Stalinist nation when his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994 after being groomed for the post for 20 years.

North Korea denies Kim was ill and since October has released photos and video footage depicting an active and healthy Kim touring the country. The photos and footage typically are undated, and no live footage of the leader has been shown in months.

On Friday, Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency released still photos of Kim's meeting with the Chinese envoy and hosting a reception for Wang. Dressed in his trademark Mao suit, Kim appeared a little thinner, but generally in good health.

But in some photos, Kim's left hand appears swollen. Strokes can cause paralysis, and there has been some speculation that Kim's left hand might have been affected.

China remains communist North Korea's only major ally, and a main aid donor for the impoverished nation.

Associated Press Writers Scott McDonald and Gillian Wong in Beijing contributed to this report.

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