North Korean leader Kim Jong-il headed for eastern China by train yesterday during a mystery-shrouded visit to his country’s most important ally and source of aid, South Korean news reports said.
Kim was traveling to Yangzhou, west of Shanghai, Yonhap news agency reported, citing diplomatic sources. South Korean broadcaster YTN said he might be headed to Shanghai, which he has visited in the past to study China’s economic reforms.
Kim apparently entered China on Friday and visited an industrial city in the northeast on what is believed to be his third trip to the country in 13 months. Such visits are seen as a means to shore up support for his isolated government and faltering economy.
Details of the trip were not known. Kim’s foreign trips are cloaked in secrecy and China has confirmed his official visits — most recently in May and August of last year — only after his departure.
Employees who answered the telephone at the Yangzhou and Shanghai railway stations and the Yangzhou city hall said they had no information about a possible visit by Kim. They refused to give their names.
A visit to Yangzhou, a tourist spot on the Yangtze River, could have special symbolism for Kim. It would come 20 years after Chinese state media say his father, North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, visited the city in 1991 and held talks there with China’s then-president, Jiang Zeming (江澤民).
Earlier news reports in South Korea had said Kim was headed straight for Beijing to hold talks with Chinese leaders.
On Saturday, Kim visited the industrial center of Changchun, Yonhap said. He met there last August with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
Kim is believed to fear flying and travels in armored trains within North Korea and on trips across Russia and into China.
Japanese public broadcaster NHK obtained a grainy video appearing to show Kim in Mudanjiang on Friday. He was shown shaking hands and waving to Chinese officials before climbing into a limousine.
South Korean media had initially suggested Kim’s son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, was either making a trip to China alone or was accompanying his father.
China and North Korea want to resume six-nation talks on ending the North’s nuclear programs in return for economic aid and other concessions. Fellow participants South Korea and the US say the North must first exhibit sincerity toward disarmament.
China’s Global Times newspaper published foreign news reports on Saturday about Kim Jong-il’s visit, but no official confirmation. It said in an editorial the world should be grateful that Beijing maintains open channels of communication with North Korea.
The US State Department said it had no information on North Korean officials visiting China. It said US officials would visit the North from tomorrow to Saturday to evaluate the country’s food needs.