North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, left, is shown in a photo released this week… (Korean Central News Agency )
Reporting from Seoul — He rarely leaves his secure confines in Pyongyang, but Asian news reports cite signs that reclusive North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il is preparing for a trip to Beijing.
Kim, who is believed to have traveled to China four times since 2000, two of them in the month of January, could be ready to announce his nation's return to the six-party nuclear disarmament talks, some analysts say. North Korea's desperate economy, weakened by international sanctions after Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests last year, could force Kim back to the bargaining table in the hopes of extracting food and financial aid.
Kim's previous trips abroad have signaled new business ventures or a renewed push for nuclear talks. American officials say they would welcome such a trip if it resulted in renewed rounds of the stalled nuclear negotiations that have brought North Korea together with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.
"We have always welcomed interaction with North Korea by our partners in the six-party process, and we welcome that interaction if Kim Jong Il travels to Beijing," a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity, told South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
"China has had multiple trips to Pyongyang to make clear to Kim Jong Il what needs to be done now. If Kim Jong Il comes to Beijing and tells Chinese leaders that he is ready to return to the six-party process and move forward, we will welcome that news."
North Korean officials have tightened security around a rail border crossing into China, news reports said. Pyongyang has also closed a customs house in the northwest part of the country near the Chinese border city of Dandong, Japan's Nihon Keizai Shimbun business daily reported.
Kim's sojourns outside North Korea are usually shrouded in secrecy. During his last trip to China in 2006, his heavily guarded armored train returned home before his trip was announced by state media in Pyongyang, the capital.
Chinese officials have not commented on the prospect of another Kim visit. But Chinese media have quoted speculation by South Korean sources that visits to North Korea by high-ranking Chinese officials suggest North Korea may be preparing for a return trip. Those officials' visits followed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's trip to Pyongyang in October.
The trip to China also suggests that Kim's health has improved; he suffered what many believe was a stroke in 2008.
"It is certain that his health has gotten better since the second half of the last year," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
The State Department official told Yonhap that all eyes will be on Kim Jong Il if he makes the trip.
"Our primary focus is, what will Kim Jong Il say, what will he do?" the official said.
Asked about Kim's possible Chinese trip, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told Yonhap, "You know, whatever the Dear Leader decides to do, it's up to him."
Ju-min Park, a researcher in The Times' Seoul Bureau, and Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.