- Associated Press - Monday, August 30, 2010

SEOUL (AP) — After Kim Jong-il’s safe return Monday, North Korea confirmed what for days had been clear: The “Dear Leader” was on a not-so-secret trip to northeastern China.

Mr. Kim hobnobbed with top Chinese officials, including President Hu Jintao, toured factories and paid a nostalgic trip down Kim family memory lane, according to Chinese and North Korean state media — possibly, rumor had it, accompanied by the son many believe is being groomed to succeed Mr. Kim as North Korea’s next leader.

There was no sign of Kim Jong-un, the 20-something son said to be in his favor, and there was no mention of him in either nation’s dispatches about the five-day trip, which was shrouded in typical secrecy.

Still, signs that the North Korean regime is laying the groundwork for a succession movement abounded in the 68-year-old Mr. Kim’s pointedly patriotic and strategic trip by train through northeastern China.

China remains North Korea’s chief ally and benefactor, supplier of troops when the Korean War broke out 60 years ago and its main source of aid to this day. Beijing’s continued good will is crucial for North Korea since its ailing economy is unable to provide enough food for its people. China provides food assistance and nearly all of North Korea’s oil, and much of Pyongyang’s trade, passes through China.

China is also the place where North Korea founder Kim Il-sung, father of the current leader, sowed his revolutionary roots as a budding guerrilla fighter when his family fled the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1920s.

The trip — just weeks after the 60th anniversary of the Korean War and during the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea — served both to solidify North Korea’s ties with its most important ally and to emphasize the Kim family’s patriotic lineage.

It also came as a surprise to those who expected him to be in Pyongyang, courting former President Jimmy Carter during Mr. Carter’s own surprise trip to the communist capital last week.

North Korea has been building toward pivotal celebrations in 2012 to mark the 100th year of Kim Il-sung’s birth, an occasion that would have been a key time for a regime change. However, time may be running out: Mr. Kim reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008 and is noticeably grayer and thinner than in the past.

The fact that Mr. Kim, who never flies and rarely travels abroad, was making a second trip to China in four months gave the trip a sense of unprecedented urgency.

“His purpose is to increase economic and diplomatic assistance from China for his succession process, which is more urgent than before,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “This is the center of his concern.”

Mr. Shi said the purpose of Mr. Kim’s visit was to drum up support from China for the leadership succession, a process that Beijing also wants to see go smoothly. Analysts note that the trip comes just days before North Korea is to hold a Workers’ Party congress next month — the biggest political convention in 30 years.

The last major convention was in 1980, when Kim Jong-il officially was named to a senior Workers’ Party post, and many believe the son similarly may be granted a key party position.

“With the party convention ahead, North Korea was trying to show its people economic and political stability through North Korean-Chinese cooperation, and to use the convention to make steady progress on succession,” said Kim Yong-hyun, an expert on North Korean affairs at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

It probably didn’t hurt, either, to snub the ex-leader of the nation’s longtime foe, the United States. Pyongyang remains locked in a standoff with Washington over its nuclear weapons program and the March sinking of a South Korean warship, a deadly incident the United States and South Korea consider a violation of the armistice signed in 1953. North Korea denies involvement.

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