Kim Jong-il is in China, but purpose of visit is a mystery

The arrival in China of North Korean leader Kim Jung-il underscores the importance of the ties between Pyongyang and its only real ally, Beijing.

South Koreans at a Seoul railway station watch a news programme about Kim Jong-il's visit to China yesterday. Truth Leem / Reuters
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BEIJING //The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, visted China yesterday, although confusion surrounded events and initial reports suggested it was his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, who had made the trip and not the "Dear Leader" himself.
It was Kim Jong-il's third visit in a year to China, the only real ally to impoverished and highly secretive North Korea.
Speculation suggested Kim Jong-il may have been looking to secure food aid from Beijing or to discuss the continuing international impasse over Pyongyang's nuclear programme.
While there was no official confirmation of the visit yesterday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted senior officials from the administration in Seoul as saying it had taken place. Kim Jong-il, aged 69 and believed to be in poor health following reports of a stroke, last visited China in August last year.
The month following that last visit, Kim Jong-un was promoted to the equivalent of a four-star general and made vice chairman of the country's Central Military Commission, as well as being given a place on the Central Committee of the Workers' Party, indicating he was likely to take over the leadership. It was unclear last night whether Kim Jong-un was accompanying his father.
Reports said there was heavy security at the Chinese city of Mudanjiang, close to the border with North Korea, and that guests were ordered out of a hotel on Thursday night, possibly so a North Korean delegation could visit.
If it turns out that Kim Jong-un was travelling with his father, it will be further confirmation of his status as heir apparent.
Partly educated in Switzerland, Kim Jong-un is believed to be 28 or 29 years old and, as the youngest of his father's three sons, was not initially seen as a likely successor.
"China is one of the very few countries that recognise and support the North Korean regime, and any issues regarding the succession of the leadership must get approval from China," Chan Chepo, a regional political analyst and assistant professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said by telephone yesterday.
Kim Jong-il's visit to China in August last year was thought have been aimed at drumming up support for the succession process. During that visit the North Korean leader met Hu Jintao, the Chinese president.
In previous visits, Kim Jong-il has also been to cities such as Shenzhen in the south that have developed rapidly as a result of China's economic liberalisation. Observers have seen these trips as China's way of showing the North Korean leadership the benefits of reforms, although as yet North Korea's economy remains stagnant and the country is believed to suffer from food shortages. North Korea has been led by Kim Jong-il since the death in 1994 of his father, Kim Il-sung, who founded the country.
In November last year the country's relations with South Korea were plunged into crisis after Pyongyang launched a missile attack on a South Korean island, killing two young marines and two civilians and prompting demonstrations in the south that demanded retaliation.
Also in November, the existence of North Korean uranium-enrichment facilities, which could provide material for nuclear weapons, were revealed.
More recently, Beijing has pressed for the resumption of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme. These discussions, which involve both Koreas, China, Russia, the United States and Japan, were suspended in 2009.
The United States, South Korea and Japan are reluctant to restart the talks without assurances North Korea is serious about resolving issues concerning its nuclear programme, and not just trying to secure aid and other benefits.
This month a UN report suggested North Korea and Iran have been engaged in the exchange of ballistic missile technology via a third country, identified by diplomats as China.