Reporting from Beijing and South Korea — When North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, ventures outside his hermit kingdom, he must be in need of something, and for his current trip to China, the wish list is especially long.
From his last real ally, the 68-year-old dictator is seeking protection from international sanctions and the nod to install his twentysomething son as his successor, as well as money to prop up a faltering economy.
Famously phobic about flying, Kim reportedly arrived in China on Monday, in a style befitting one of the world's last Cold War dictators: on an armored train and in what was supposed to be complete state secrecy. He and his retinue crossed the Yalu River separating North Korea and China and arrived at 5:20 a.m. in the border city of Dandong.
From there, he was said to have traveled to the port city of Dalian, where he was believed to be ensconced in the luxury Furama Hotel, before heading in the early evening to Beijing. In keeping with Kim's anachronistic style, the Chinese government maintained a media blackout on the visit (in contrast to the many photographs published of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and even more of his model wife, Carla Bruni, during a visit to China last week).
But it's impossible to keep under wraps a 17-carriage armored train, not to mention the accompanying limousines and a bus with Pyongyang license plates that was reportedly following along. Roads alongside Kim's route were closed for much of the day Monday for security.
South Korean and Japanese press were stalking Kim's delegation; once in Beijing, he is believed likely to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao and a succession of other Chinese officials.
Kim has visited China four times since 2000, but not since 2006, several months before North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.
He badly needs Chinese money and, just as important, China's clout in the international community, especially on the U.N. Security Council, to fend off crippling economic sanctions.
"To remain strong and withstand the pressure, the relationship with China is very important,'' said Kim Keun-sik, a professor at South Korea's Kyungnam University.
Kim Jong Il is also likely looking for — but probably won't get — China's blessing to install his youngest son as his successor. There is keen interest in whether the young man, Kim Jong Un, would accompany his father to China for an official introduction. As of Monday, he had not been spotted. Kim is in poor health, recovering from a stroke, and according to some reports suffering from kidney disease, diabetes and possibly cancer.
"One gets the sense that the North Koreans are quietly looking for an endorsement, but this becomes very delicate,'' said Scott Snyder, an expert on North Korea with the Asia Foundation. He says it is more likely for China to "wait and see who actually emerges as the successor" and then try to work with that person.
North Korea and China enjoy a special relationship that the late Mao Tse-tung once described as "close as lips and teeth." The bridge that carried Kim across the Yalu on Monday was named the Friendship Bridge, in reference to China's incursion across the Yalu in 1950 to join with Communist forces against the U.S.-supported South Korea in the Korean War.
But China has appeared increasingly frustrated with its old ally, whose behavior counters its paramount goal of maintaining stability in the region.
In addition to its rogue nuclear program, North Korea is suspected of the March 26 sinking of a South Korean patrol boat, the Cheonan, in which 46 sailors were killed. Many analysts believe that Kim's trip to China, originally planned for early April, was delayed as a result of the Cheonan incident, as China didn't want to be seen as supporting North Korea's action.
South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak, was in China as well last week, meeting with Hu on Friday to solicit support if his country sought stronger U.N. sanctions in retaliation for the Cheonan attack.
"China wants to hear North Korea's explanation so it can determine its position,'' said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
China has been taking a more active role recently in mediating North Korea's many disputes with the international community. Beijing is thought likely to press Kim on returning to the stalled six-nation talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear program.
In addition to the diplomatic agenda, North Korea and China have business to discuss regarding North Korea's need for investment in its faltering economy. China recently leased space in the port in Rajin, a special economic zone on North Korea's eastern coast, which would open up for China a convenient trading route to the Sea of Japan. China is reportedly considering leasing, as well, two North Korean-owned islands in the Yalu River.
Park Ju-min of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.