SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea’s iron ruler Kim Jong-il made a surprise visit to China on Friday, South Korean media reported, amid a series of confusing reports about who was involved and the purpose of the trip.
South Korea’s media quoted South Korean presidential and government sources as saying the 69-year-old leader had entered China, the North’s only major ally, by train on Friday morning.
Earlier, the same media outlets reported it was youngest son and heir apparent Kim Jong-un who arrived by train in Tumen, in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin.
A presidential source would not confirm the later reports.
If the elder Kim’s visit is confirmed, it would be the North Korean leader’s third trip to China inside the past 12 months.
In the past, such visits have been shrouded in mystery, and it has taken days before either China or North Korea even acknowledged a visit was underway.
Kim Jong-il, who travels by train due to his fear of flying,
visited China last May and August. In the latter visit, he met Chinese President Hu Jintao in the northeastern city of Changchun and told him that Pyongyang remained committed to denuclearisation as per previous international agreements.
Yet, in November the North revealed a uranium enrichment programme, opening a second route to make a nuclear bomb along with its plutonium programme.
That announcement, say Seoul and Washington, shows the North is not serious about its push to restart aid-for-disarmament nuclear talks, stalled for over two years.
Kim Jong-il suffered a suspected stroke in 2008 and analysts had thought his visits last year were aimed at shoring up support for a handover of power to his youngest son, Jong-un.
But the elder Kim’s health appears to have improved significantly since those visits, prompting diplomats and analysts to re-evaluate their assessment of the pace of succession.
Recently published images of the so-called “Dear Leader” show him looking portly and pudgy-faced. That is a far cry from the sickly figure photographed in parliament in 2009 and the frail person gripping a handrail at a military parade last year.
Reclusive North Korea is preparing for a third generation of Kim family rule, with the inexperienced Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, poised to take over from his father as the autocratic state’s next leader.
Analysts say now it appears the succession process has been slowed down after the young Kim’s rapid rise in political and military circles last year.
In April, the young Kim was surprisingly overlooked for a post at the powerful National Defence Commission.
Most photos and videotape show the elder Kim favouring his right hand, with his left hand by his side or in a jacket pocket, possibly partially paralysed by the stroke. But his appetite has clearly returned and he has a fuller head of hair.
In recent years, officials and experts have speculated Kim’s death was imminent, due to any one of a litany of illnesses, including pancreatic cancer, diabetes and the stroke. The latest theory is he may have suffered a brain tumour.
South Korea’s spy agency had been expecting a visit to China by Jong-un for months.
North Korea has dramatically increased economic cooperation with China over the past two years to circumvent international sanctions imposed for its nuclear and missile tests in 2009.
South Korea and the United States have subsequently tightened sanctions following two attacks on the peninsula last year which killed 50 South Koreans.
The Chosun Ilbo website reported on Monday that Kim or his son might visit joint 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 May 28, and construction of roads connecting Hunchun in China and Rajin-Sonbong in North Korea on May 30, the paper said.
Additional reporting by Seoul Newsroom; Editing by David Chance and Ron Popeski