Reports: NKorean leader Kim to meet top Beijing officials during rare trip to China

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is expected to meet top Beijing officials Tuesday, a day after he arrived in China for his first journey abroad in years, reports said.

Kim's trip comes amid mounting tension on the divided Korean peninsula over speculation his impoverished communist regime may have torpedoed a South Korean warship.

China's leadership has also been trying — so far unsuccessfully — to persuade North Korea's absolute ruler to come back to the negotiating table in talks to end its nuclear weapons program.

A luxury 17-car train carrying Kim pulled into the Chinese border town of Dandong on Monday morning, according to South Korean and Japanese media reports. Kim then headed to the Chinese port city of Dalian aboard a passenger vehicle and is believed to have spent the night there, they said.

Photos and TV footage 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. Major Japanese TV networks 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.

In Dalian, Kim reportedly toured an automobile-manufacturing factory, a shipbuilding yard and port facilities and is believed to have met Vice Premier Li Keqiang at a banquet Monday night. He is expected to travel on to Beijing aboard his train for talks with top Chinese leaders including President Hu Jintao as early as Tuesday night, Seoul's mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported citing an unidentified diplomatic source in Beijing.

The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper in Seoul carried a similar report. YTN television network, however, said Chinese officials may visit Dalian to meet Kim because a 12-hour railroad journey from Dalian to Beijing could be a burden for Kim who suffered a reported stroke in 2008.

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 the only the fifth since he took over power from his father in 1994, have circulated for months since Chinese President Hu 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 to a phalanx of soldiers and police in the Chinese border town of Dandong, South Korean and Japanese media reported. Kim is known to shun air travel.

Japan's Kyodo News agency, citing unidentified sources knowledgeable about China-North Korea relations, also said Kim was seen at Dalian's five-star Furama 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. Chinese and South Korean officials could not confirm Kim's reported trip.

The timing of the visit comes as a U.N. conference opened 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 anyone," 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.