While Carter visits North Korea, leader Kim Jong Il may have traveled to China, reports say

By Hyung-jin Kim, AP
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reports: NKorean leader may be visiting China

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was making a secret trip to China on Thursday in what would be his second visit this year to his country’s biggest source of diplomatic and financial support, South Korean news reports said.

Kim’s special armored train crossed the border into China early Thursday, the Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unidentified high-ranking Seoul official. YTN television carried a similar report but said Kim arrived in China late Wednesday night.

A National Intelligence Service spokesman told The Associated Press that the reports “appear to be true” but gave no further details. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department policy.

If true, the surprise trip abroad comes as former President Jimmy Carter makes a rare trip to North Korea on a private mission to secure the freedom of an imprisoned American. There was no word on whether Carter — who met in 1994 with Kim’s father, late President Kim Il Sung — had been scheduled to meet the current leader.

The reclusive Kim rarely travels abroad, and it is unusual for him to leave the country when an important foreign guest is visiting his country.

However, South Korean officials obtained intelligence that Kim’s special train crossed the border into China, Yonhap said. The exact destination and purpose of the trip were unclear, the report said.

China’s Foreign Ministry did not comment. In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, Japan’s top government spokesman, said he was aware of indirect information about Kim’s possible trip to China.

“We are quickly trying to determine if these reports are true,” he said at a news conference.

Kim may be traveling with one of his sons to consult with Chinese officials on plans to transfer power to a successor, Yonhap and YTN said.

North Korea announced in June that new ruling Workers’ Party leaders would be elected in early September, sparking speculation that the move is aimed at boosting a government campaign to hand over power to a Kim heir.

It’s widely believed that Kim is preparing to transfer power to his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, and many North Korea watchers believe the son will be granted a key party position next month.

Speculation on the succession intensified after the 68-year-old Kim reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008. Kim’s health problems prompted concerns about instability and a possible power struggle in the nuclear-armed country if he were to die without anointing a successor.

Kim’s trip, if confirmed, would be his sixth to China, the North’s last major diplomatic ally and benefactor. He last visited China in May, meeting top leaders, including President Hu Jintao.

Associated Press writer Tomoko Hosaka in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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