North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il appeared to be headed home from a secretive trip to Beijing that analysts believed was intended to pave the way for an imminent power succession to Kim’s youngest son.
Kim’s private train traveled to China this week on a mission to appeal to Communist leaders to support the political emergence of Kim’s son, Kim Jong Eun, who reportedly accompanied his father.
For the last few days, reporters have trailed a motorcade that many believe shepherded the reclusive Kim to several cities in northeast China -- a convoy that was preceded by police escorts.
A grainy photograph published by Japan’s Kyodo News agency shows a diminutive man in Kim’s signature khaki jumpsuit standing on a diplomatic red carpet shaking hands with a man believed to be a senior Chinese official.
Officials in Beijing have not commented on Kim’s itinerary and have not confirmed that the North Korean leader even traveled to the country. Such details are usually released only after Kim has safety returned to North Korea.
Kim’s surprise trip to China came as former President Carter arrived, reportedly at North Korea’s invitation, to negotiate the release of an American English teacher who had been held by the North Koreans since January for illegally entering the country.
The snubbing of Carter, analysts say, sent a message that North Korea’s relationship to its Communist neighbor and closest ally is paramount to all other concerns.
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper and Yonhap news agency both reported that Kim was believed to have met Chinese President Hu Jintao in the city of Changchun on Friday. He also briefly visited Yuwen Middle School in Jilin City, where his father, North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, studied from 1927 to 1930. His family had fled there to escape the Japanese occupation of Korea.
Kim Jong Il, who is 68 and in poor health after suffering a stroke in 2008, is expected to announce his son, believed to be in his 20s, as his successor at a special congress next month of the ruling Workers Party.
The visit comes amid tensions on the Korean peninsula following the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March. Seoul has accused North Korea of carrying out an unprovoked torpedo attack. Pyongyang has denied the charge.
Yonhap reported Sunday that Kim might be headed toward a third Chinese city near the North Korean border before heading home. Kim’s special train left the Chinese city of Changchun around 9:15 p.m. Saturday, but on Sunday there were no signs on the border that the train had passed back into North Korea.
A South Korean diplomatic source in Beijing told the news agency that Kim’s “special train appears to have taken a different route,” which make take him further north to the cities of Yanji or Tumen in northeastern China near the border with North Korea.
The trip was the second to China in three months for the reclusive Kim, who rarely travels abroad, signaling that political change may be afoot in the nation of 23 million.
The north relies on foreign aid, mainly form China and South Korea, to feed residents who in recent years have been hit by crop failure and starvation.