North Korean leader will go to China soon

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North Korean leader will go to China soon

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s visit to China is imminent, Blue House and government sources said yesterday.

“We believe there is a high possibility and we are closely watching the situation,” Blue House spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye said yesterday at a media briefing, without disclosing further details.

Kim did say that Friday’s sinking of South Korean Navy ship Cheonan and Kim’s trip to China are being treated as separate matters by the Lee Myung-bak administration, and she dismissed speculation of a link between the two events.

A presidential aide dealing with foreign affairs and security matters also said yesterday that signs have been detected that the reclusive communist leader’s trip to China is going ahead as speculated. Citing the sensitivity of the intelligence, he refused to elaborate further, only saying that the visit is imminent.

Speculation has grown in recent days that Kim was preparing to travel to China to seek Beijing’s political and economic support. Pyongyang has been under international sanctions imposed after its nuclear and missile tests last year. The country’s already fragile economy worsened dramatically after the failure of last November’s currency revaluation.

China is the biggest benefactor of the North and the host of the six-party nuclear talks that aim to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. North Korea observers have said Kim’s trip to China will likely be aimed at seeking economic support and to get Beijing’s approval for his effort to install his youngest son, Jong-un, as his successor.

“Diplomatic sources in China are working busily now,” said Grand National Representative Gu Sang-chan, secretary general of the Korea-China Parliamentary Friendship Association. “Taking into account that the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly will open a session on April 9 and Chinese President Hu Jintao will visit the United States later that month, Kim will likely visit China on April 1 or 2.”

If realized, it will be Kim’s fifth trip to China. He had summits with China’s leaders in 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2006, each time traveling by a special train. He used the same train for a trip to Moscow in 2001.

A diplomatic source said yesterday that busier than usual activity was detected in the city of Dandong, located on the China-North Korea border.

Yonhap News also reported signs from China that Kim’s trip is imminent.

“I have heard rumors that people who appeared to be North Korean agents were checking on the security situation of the train station here since Sunday,” the news service reported, quoting a source in Dandong.

Mobile phone communications in Dandong have also been affected by jamming from North Korea, Yonhap reported, quoting a Chinese telecommunication service provider.

On April 22, 2004, a massive explosion took place near Ryongchon Station in North Korea, across the border from Dandong, just hours after Kim passed the site on his way back from China. According to North Korea, 154 people died and 1,300 were injured. A United Nations team said 1,850 homes were destroyed. The North’s Korean Central News Agency said the blast was caused by two trains loaded with oil and nitric acid ammonium touching electrical wires.

Meanwhile, China’s Xinhua News and the Korean Central News Agency reported yesterday that a North Korean military delegation arrived in Beijing on Tuesday and held talks with Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party of China. Xu reaffirmed China’s unswerving commitment to the two countries’ military ties, the report said. Government sources said the delegation could be an advance team discussing protocol for Kim’s visit.

Anticipation of Kim’s trip reached a peak last week when Washington expressed hopes that such a visit would lead to a resumption of the stalled six-party talks.

“I hope when he arrives in Beijing, he’ll announce that North Korea’s willing to come back to the six-party process and take affirmative action steps toward denuclearization,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said on March 22. “We wish him safe travels.”


By Ser Myo-ja, Kang Chan-ho [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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