A paramilitary police officer at the North Korean embassy in Beijing opens… (Reuters )
Reporting from Beijing — Kim Jong Il was reported to be visiting China on Friday, the third trip in 12 months for the reclusive North Korean leader.
The luxuriously equipped and well-armored private train in which Kim travels was spotted crossing into the Chinese border town of Tumen on Friday morning, according to South Korean news media.
Early dispatches said the train was carrying Kim Jong Eun, the leader's youngest son and presumed successor. But the South Korean government said later that the 69-year-old Kim Jong Il was the main visitor and that it was unclear whether his son had accompanied him. South Korean intelligence sources were quoted as saying the senior Kim was spending the night in Mudanjiang, a small city in the northern Chinese province of Heilongjiang, which borders Russia.
As has been the case on previous visits, the Chinese government was mum about the purported visit of a head of state who is known to be unusually zealous about his privacy.
Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert at the Beijing-based Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, said that if there was indeed a visit, its purpose might have been to request food and economic aid.
"The North Korean economy isn't going well, and ordinary North Korean people are having difficulty in their lives," Zhang said.
The United Nations World Food Program last month launched a $200-million emergency relief program, and the regime in Pyongyang, for the first time since a famine in the mid-1990s, has been unabashedly pleading for food donations. But international donors have been reluctant to step up because of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and human rights abuses. South Korea suspended aid last year after a torpedo attack on one of its naval ships that was blamed on North Korea, and the subsequent shelling of a South Korean island.
The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo suggested that Kim's visit might also be related to several joint economic projects underway along the border. Groundbreaking is scheduled for May 28 on Hwanggumpyong, a North Korean-controlled island in the Yalu River where Chinese businesspeople have leased land in hopes of building a tourism and manufacturing complex. China also has leased part of a port in Rajin, which gives it direct access to shipping routes off North Korea's eastern coast.
Although China is North Korea's main ally and benefactor, Beijing has been reluctant to make large contributions of aid to Pyongyang without signs of Chinese-style economic reforms.
Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in 2008, but analysts say his health has improved in recent months and that the process of preparing his 28-year-old son for leadership has lost some of its urgency.
Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing bureau and Jung-yoon Choi of the Seoul bureau contributed to this report.