Confusion surrounded a North Korean visit to China yesterday, as media in South Korea said North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had crossed the border, contradicting earlier reports that his son and heir apparent Kim Jong-un had traveled there.
South Korea’s YTN and MBC television quoted South Korean presidential and government sources as saying the 69-year-old leader had entered China by train yesterday morning.
Earlier, the same broadcasters reported it was Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, who arrived by train in Tumen, in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin. A presidential source would not confirm the later reports.
It would be the North Korean leader’s third visit to China inside the past 12 months.
North Korea is preparing for a third generation of Kim family rule, with the inexperienced Kim Jong-un poised to take over from his father as the autocratic state’s next leader.
Analysts say the succession process, hastened last September because of Kim Jong-il’s poor health, has probably slowed down in recent months as the 69-year-old leader’s condition appears to be improving.
South Korea’s spy agency had been expecting a visit for months. Media reports said the trip would likely focus on developing economic ties between the neighbors and could involve visits to joint projects on their border.
Paik Hak-soon, director of the Center for North Korean studies at Sejong Institute in South Korea, said Kim Jong-un’s trip was politically and economically motivated.
“First it is meant to demonstrate and establish himself as the successor. Secondly, he needs to make achievements in the economic area because of the North’s economic difficulties,” he said.
The Chosun Ilbo Web site reported earlier yesterday that either Kim Jong-il or his son could attend a groundbreaking ceremony for two development projects on the North Korea-China border at the end of the month.
A construction project developing an island called Hwanggumpyong in the lower reaches of the Tumen River starts on Saturday next week and construction of roads connecting Hunchun in China and Rajin-Sonbong in North Korea on May 30, the paper said.
Chinese and South Korean government officials could not immediately confirm the visit.
North Korea has dramatically increased its economic cooperation with China over the past two years to circumvent international sanctions imposed for its nuclear and missile tests in 2009.
Last year, trade between China and North Korea was worth US$3.5 billion, up 29.6 percent from 2009, according to Chinese customs statistics. China’s imports from North Korea last year grew by 50.6 percent to US$1.2 billion and its -exports to North Korea grew 20.8 percent to US$2.3 billion.
North Korea has been further squeezed by tougher sanctions by South Korea and the US following two attacks on the peninsula last year which killed 50 South Koreans.
Zhang Liangui (張蓮桂), an expert on North Korea at the Central Party School in Beijing which trains Chinese officials, said that if confirmed, Kim Jong-un’s trip was meant to extract more aid and support from China.
However, Zhang said Kim Jong-un would not be the one to hammer out specifics of any new agreements with China.
“Kim Jong-un wouldn’t understand that kind of thing. He wouldn’t have deciding authority over that either,” Zhang said.