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N. Korean leader in eastern China, may meet Jiang

Pyongyang media remains silent as China confirms Kim’s trip


North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is currently visiting an eastern Chinese city, local reports said Monday, as Pyongyang remained silent about the secretive trip posing potential influence over inter-Korean ties.

A train carrying Kim and the 70-member delegation arrived at Yangzhou, west of the Chinese capital Beijing, late night Sunday, and the reclusive leader left his accommodation for an unknown destination the next morning, Seoul reports said, quoting unnamed sources there.

The North Korean dictator, whose rare overseas trips draw much regional attention, has been visiting his key ally since Friday for “development and reform learning purposes,” a Chinese leader told the South Korean president during their meeting in Japan.

Kim is expected to stay in the city for a few days where he may meet with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, observers say. Jiang, who continues to wield influence over incumbent politicians and officials in China, met with North Korean founder Kim Il-sung in 1991, just three years before his death.

Kim’s trip is taking place amid a flurry of diplomatic efforts among regional powers aimed at resuming the multinational nuclear disarmament talks.

Beijing, which has been trying to get the two Koreas to hold nuclear talks and mend ties as the first step in restarting larger-scale negotiations, is largely expected to urge Pyongyang to take up the suggestion upon Kim’s visit, analysts say.

Hosted by China, the six-nation dialogue, also involving the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan and Russia, has been stalled since the end of 2008, fueling regional concerns over Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear ambitions.

The U.S. and its main Asian allies Seoul and Tokyo have been passive toward immediately restarting talks with the North, questioning the veracity of its previous pledge to disarm and its willingness to improve cross-border relations.

Pyongyang conducted two deadly attacks against Seoul last year, killing 50 people. It also unveiled a new uranium enrichment facility to outside experts in November, sparking regional concerns.

Kim’s trip to China, the third in just over a year, appears to indicate the communist state’s growing urgency in securing financial support from its last-remaining benefactor to overcome deepening food shortages and international isolation.

Meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak during a trilateral summit in Japan over the weekend, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said his government had invited Kim to “provide North Korea with the chance to understand China’s economic development,” confirming the trip shrouded in secrecy.

Kim will be in China as a fact-finding team from Washington arrives in his country Tuesday to examine its food shortages.

North Korea has been appealing to the international community for aid to feed its starving people.

While the World Food Program concluded in March that more than 6 million North Koreans, about a quarter of the communist state’s population, need urgent aid of some 475,000 tons of food, Seoul and Washington have been lukewarm toward resuming aid in full scale, citing the country’s earlier provocations and ongoing nuclear ambitions.

Kim’s train reportedly crossed the border and arrived in China’s Tumen on Friday, touring Changchun over the weekend.

Earlier media reports in Seoul had said it was the North’s young heir apparent who was visiting China, but he does not seem included in the list of Pyongyang’s entourage, sources say.

The leader-to-be Kim Jong-un, still in his 20s, was first unveiled to outsiders in September and is expected to take over the impoverished regime from his father as early as next year. The 69-year-old incumbent leader apparently suffered a stroke in 2008 and has continued to suffer from poor health.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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