North Korean leader Kim Jong-il arrived in China yesterday, a South Korean military intelligence official said, on a trip that could be key to restarting stalled talks on the regime's nuclear ambitions.
China's Foreign Ministry said Kim planned to visit Beijing at some point, but did not give the exact timing.
Such a visit, if confirmed, would come at a sensitive time for North Korea, which is at odds with the US over whether to return to stalled disarmament talks organized by China, Pyongyang's main ally and aid donor.
A South Korean military intelligence official said that Kim entered China yesterday by train.
"We confirmed he went to China by train," said the official, who requested anonymity. "We don't know why."
The official said the information came from intelligence sources inside China. But South Korean government agencies in Seoul said they were unable to confirm whether Kim had left North Korea for China.
Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) visited North Korea in October in an apparent effort to push for progress in the six-nation nuclear talks. The other countries taking part are South Korea, Japan and Russia.
"Of course, Kim Jong-il plans to visit China. There's definitely such a plan. But as for the exact time of the visit, I will release information when I am authorized," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan (孔泉) said at a regular news briefing.
Kim, who seldom travels abroad, last visited China in April 2004 for a summit with Chinese leaders and studied Chinese economic reforms.
When asked what the main topic of discussion would be during a trip by Kim, Kong said that the six-party talks would be "crucial."
"Whatever the conditions, high-level meetings of the parties cannot avoid this issue," he said.
Cho Han-bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think tank in Seoul, said Kim is trying to deepen his relations with China as a way to press the US to normalize ties with the North.
Pyongyang on Monday sent its highest-level signal yet that the nuclear negotiations are unlikely to resume soon, repeating its demand that the US drop sanctions to end the impasse.
In a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman condemned discussions with Washington as "illogical."
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, said Kim's government is trying to improve relations with Beijing amid a lack of progress with Washington.
"It is trying to find a breakthrough in those [relations] with China, as Beijing is a key party in the nuclear issue," Koh said. "North Korea has exhausted all of its available cards."