SEOUL, South Korea – SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il arrived on a luxury 17-car train in China on Monday, reports said, in what would be his first journey abroad in years as his regime faces a worsening economy and speculation it may have torpedoed a South Korean warship.
Photos taken in the Chinese port city of Dalian showed a man in sunglasses who appeared to be Kim getting into a car, surrounding by security personnel.
Kim's visit, if confirmed, comes at an awkward time for Beijing. The Chinese leadership has been trying to get Kim to agree to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks stalled now for a year, and believed that it had won the North Korean dictator's assent last October.
Since then, however, prospects for negotiations have dimmed. Pyongyang has been unwilling to comply with requests from the U.S. to resume the talks, and tensions have risen between North Korea and South Korea, partly over the mysterious ship sinking in late March in which 46 sailors were killed.
Rumors of a Kim trip, the first since he traveled to China in 2006 and since the 68-year-old leader reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008, have circulated for months since Chinese President Hu Jintao invited Kim for a visit to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the allies.
China, which backed North Korea with troops during the 1950-53 Korean War, is North Korea's last major ally and biggest provider of aid, and is widely seen as the country with the most clout with Pyongyang.
Kim's special armored train arrived early Monday to a phalanx of soldiers and police in the Chinese border town of Dandong, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said. Kim is known to shun air travel.
He met local Dandong leaders before moving on, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said in a statement, citing sources in the border town who claimed they saw the North Korean leader.
The train then headed to Dalian, Yonhap said. A convoy of 15 limousines was seen arriving at the city's five-star Furama Hotel, the report said, citing unidentified sources in Dandong and Beijing.
In Japan, major TV networks including NHK, Nippon Television, Fuji Television and TBS showed videos of a man who appeared to be Kim at a hotel in Dalian. Some of the footage showed the man dragging his left leg while walking.
Japan's Kyodo News agency, citing unidentified sources knowledgeable about China-North Korea relations, also said Kim was seen at the swanky hotel and published photos that appeared to be Kim.
A switchboard operator at the hotel, where the presidential suite runs more than $2,100 a night, told The Associated Press that security had been tightened but would not say whether Kim was expected.
There was no mention of the Kim trip to China in North Korean state media, which typically reports on his journeys after he returns home.
China's Foreign Ministry and Communist Party were not available to comment Monday, a national holiday in China.
South Korean officials said they could not confirm Kim's whereabouts. A spokesman at the National Intelligence Service, the main spy agency, said he was investigating whether Kim was on board the train. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing agency policy.
The timing of the visit — widely reported by South Korean and Japanese media — comes as a U.N. conference opens this week to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and explore ways to strengthen its controls on the spread of nuclear materials. China, a nuclear power, is a backer of the treaty, but is expected to come under pressure to get North Korea to comply.
Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University south of Seoul, said he expected Kim to seek Beijing's help in addressing speculation that North Korea was involved in the downing of South Korea's Cheonan navy ship — and to ask for financial help in return for announcing Pyongyang's return to the nuclear talks.
North Korea quit the disarmament-for-aid talks a year ago, and then conducted a nuclear test that drew tightened U.N. sanctions. The regime's botched currency reform aimed at regaining control over the economy late last year is believed to have worsened its financial woes.
Tensions are also growing with South Korea. Seoul has not directly blamed North Korea for the sinking of the warship, and Pyongyang has denied involvement. But suspicion has focused on the North, given its history of provocations and attacks on the South.
The two Koreas remain locked in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The South Korean warship went down March 26 near the spot where their navies have fought three bloody sea battles. North Korea disputes the maritime border.
Kim is believed to be grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him as leader of the impoverished communist nation of 24 million.
The North Korean leader has a fleet of trains equipped with reception halls, conference rooms and high-tech communications, said Lee Yong-guk, a former Kim bodyguard who defected to South Korea in 2005. He travels with a battalion of security agents, he added.
"Kim doesn't trust anything or any one," Lee told AP. "He even brings his own drinking and bathing water when he travels because he can't trust the tap anywhere else."
In 2004, a massive explosion occurred near North Korea's Ryongchon Station just hours after Kim passed through from a trip to China. More than 150 people died and 1,300 were injured, North Korean state media said. In March, a report carried by China's official Xinhua News Agency cited rumors that the explosion was an attempt on Kim's life.
Associated Press writers Charles Hutzler and Joe McDonald in Beijing, Sangwon Yoon in Seoul, and Tomoko Hosaka in Tokyo in contributed to this report.