- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

BEIJING — Secretive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il traveled to China yesterday, a South Korean military intelligence official said, raising hopes of a resumption of international talks on the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Reuters news agency reported that Mr. Kim passed through China yesterday on his way to Russia, citing a source with knowledge of the stopover.

“He passed through China. He left today for Russia,” the source said.

“He did not meet any [Chinese] leaders,” the source said, adding that Mr. Kim may stop in China on his way home.

China’s Foreign Ministry said Mr. Kim planned to visit Beijing at some point — and the nuclear issue would be a key topic for discussion — but it did not give the exact timing.

“Of course, Kim Jong-il plans to visit China. There’s definitely such a plan. But as for the exact time of the visit, I will release information when I am authorized,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said at a regular press briefing.

In Moscow, officials at the Foreign Ministry and the Kremlin had no comment on whether Mr. Kim would travel on to Russia.

China has in the past announced Mr. Kim’s visits only after he has returned to North Korea. His last visit was in early 2004.

A South Korean military intelligence official told the Associated Press that Mr. Kim crossed into China yesterday by train.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing diplomatic officials whom it did not identify, said Mr. Kim’s train was heading first for the eastern Chinese city of Shanghai.

Mr. Kim — like his late father, state founder Kim Il-sung — is thought to have an aversion to flying and has almost always traveled by train under tight secrecy on his rare visits abroad.

The trip, if confirmed, comes as North Korea refuses to return to six-nation disarmament talks, stalled since November, citing hostile policies by the United States. The talks involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.

As North Korea’s last major ally and aid donor, Beijing has been urged to use its leverage with Pyongyang to return to the talks, which have been ongoing since 2003.

Chinese President Hu Jintao visited North Korea in October in an apparent effort to push for progress in the talks.

In April 2004, Mr. Kim visited China for a summit with Chinese leaders, and he studied Chinese economic reforms.

Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said Mr. Kim’s trip to Beijing could lead to changes in North Korea’s economy.

“I believe that it is time for the North to show some specific movement for economic reconstruction by expediting its reform and openness,” he said.

North Korea began limited Chinese-style changes in its decrepit, centrally planned economy in 2002, when it introduced tentative economic reforms. But Beijing is pushing Pyongyang to speed up economic development and has promised aid and advice.

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