CHANGCHUN, China (AP) — North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il reportedly met top Chinese leaders in an apparent bid for Beijing's diplomatic and financial support for a succession plan involving his third and youngest son, who is said to be traveling with him.
Many North Korea watchers predict the son — Kim Jong Un, believed to be in his 20s — will be appointed to a key party position at a ruling Workers' Party meeting early next month — the first such gathering in decades.
To pull off the event with sufficient fanfare, North Korea will need Chinese aid, particularly following the devastating floods that battered the country's northwest this month, analysts said.
"The convention needs to be festive with the party giving out food or normalizing day-to-day life for its people but with the recent flood damages, they are not able to," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul.
"The most important thing on Kim's agenda is scoring Chinese aid, which will ensure that the meeting will be well received by the people."
On Saturday, a convoy of cars left the hotel where Kim was supposed to have spent the night in Changchun in northeast China. It was seen going into an agricultural exposition in the city. Security was heavy in the area.
Kim is expected to return home later Saturday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said, citing an unidentified source in Changchun.
The mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper said Saturday that Kim and President Hu Jintao are believed to have met in Changchun on Friday. The paper cited a high-level South Korean official it didn't identify.
The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper carried a similar report, saying the two are believed to have discussed the North's succession, the resumption of the six-party nuclear talks and ways to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation.
Choi Jae-sung, an opposition lawmaker in South Korea's parliamentary intelligence committee, told The Associated Press that Kim Jong Un was on the trip his father, citing unidentified sources.
Asked whether the elder Kim was visiting China, a duty officer with the press office of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said late Friday that "China and North Korea consistently maintain high-level contacts. We will release the relevant information in good time."
China, as North Korea's biggest diplomatic ally and a major source of food aid and oil, would expect to be kept in the loop about major political transitions in Pyongyang, but the Beijing leadership is not likely to be enthusiastic about the prospect of another dynastic succession next door, said Zhu Feng, director of Peking University's Center for International and Strategic Studies.
Kim has three sons but is said to favor the youngest, despite his youth and inexperience. However, little is known about Kim Jong Un. The only known photo of him was taken when he was a child. If he assumes power, it will continue a dynastic tradition that began when Kim Jong Il took over after the death of his father, the late President Kim Il Sung.
"We would like to see the transition of power go smoothly, but I don't think China will show any admiration for this sort of succession," said Zhu.
Kim Jong Il received years of support from his father, who appointed him to crucial posts, purged opponents, fostered contacts with powerful members of the government and created a cult of personality for him. Kim Jong Un has received little of this preparation.
Yet, withholding support is not a real option for Beijing because stability in North Korea remains a strategic priority for the Chinese government, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
"Whomever leads this regime, China has to accept it, and he will be at minimum a friend to China," Shi said. "I think China's relationship to this succession process is much simpler than most people around the world take into account."
"For China, this is an issue of having, at minimum, stability for its neighbor," he said.
Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee and to Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Alexa Olesen in Beijing contributed to this report.