Premier Wen Jiabao yesterday began a highly anticipated visit to North Korea with a rare reception by the hermit state's reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il. This fuelled expectation that progress could be made in the stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations during talks expected between the two men today. In a rare outing since he reportedly collapsed after suffering a stroke in August last year, Kim welcomed Wen at Pyongyang airport. The encounter indicated the importance the isolated country had given to wooing its most important, if not only, ally. The North Korean foreign ministry said it was the first time Kim had publicly appeared in front of a foreign press corp. The military dictator, 67, looking grey, frail and shrunken in stature, was in good spirits. He limped off into a limousine after a lavish welcoming ceremony involving hearty hugging, an honour guard and more than 1,000 North Koreans waving plastic flowers, and chanting slogans. Wen stood atop a convertible limousine with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong-il, en route to the mausoleum of late leader Kim Il-sung. On a scale comparable to the huge parade for China's National Day celebrations on Thursday, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans neatly lined the roads chanting 'welcome Wen Jiabao' and held placards hailing bilateral friendship. At the Arch of Triumph, a girl tied a red scarf around Wen's neck. In the evening, Kim accompanied Wen to a Korean opera performance adapted from Dream of the Red Mansions, an 18th-century Chinese romantic novel, China News Service reported. Anticipation has been high that Wen's visit, which both sides highlighted as marking the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties, could yield progress in pushing North Korea back to the negotiating table over its nuclear programme. 'North Korea has never abandoned the goal of 'denuclearising' the Korean peninsula. We are willing to seek to realise this goal through bilateral and multilateral talks,' Premier Kim was quoted as saying by Xinhua. Wen said China approved of North Korea's vow to seek 'denuclearisation'. The two premiers presided over a signing ceremony for six deals, including further aid from Beijing and joint development of a bridge over the Yalu River, which forms the two nations' border. The highlight of Wen's trip, the first by a Chinese premier in 18 years, will be a meeting with Kim Jong-il, expected to be held today. The international community hopes Wen's visit can bring about an explicit willingness from Pyongyang to restart the six-party talks, which ground to a halt about a year ago. There have been signs that North Korea has softened its stance on the nuclear issue since its second nuclear test in May. Kim Jong-il told visiting State Councillor Dai Bingguo last month that North Korea was ready to go back to multilateral talks on denuclearisation. Wang Fan, a professor with the Beijing-based College of Foreign Affairs, said Kim Jong-il's presence at the welcoming ceremony was a sign of North Korea's respect for the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties. Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations with Renmin University, said the outside world overestimated China's sway over its neighbour. 'North Korea has been single-minded and what China can offer is only suggestion and advice,' the professor said.