- The Washington Times - Monday, May 3, 2010

SEOUL (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 Mr. Kim getting into a car, surrounding by security personnel.

Mr. Kim’s visit, if confirmed, comes at an awkward time for Beijing. The Chinese leadership has been trying to get Mr. 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 one 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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. Mr. Kim is known to shun air travel.

Mr. Kim met local Dandong leaders before moving on, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said in a release, citing sources in the border town who claimed they saw the North Korean leader.

The train then headed Dalian, the Yonhap news agency 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.

Broadcaster YTN aired blurry footage of a man in sunglasses outside the hotel with an entourage, and identified him as Mr. Kim. Japan’s Kyodo News agency, citing unidentified sources knowledgeable about China-North Korea relations, also said Mr. Kim was seen at the swanky hotel and it published the photos that appeared to be Mr. 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 she would not say whether Mr. 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 Mr. Kim’s whereabouts. A spokesman at the National Intelligence Service, the main spy agency, said he was investigating whether Mr. Kim was on board the train. He spoke on the 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. A nuclear power, China 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 Mr. 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.

Associated Press writers Charles Hutzler and Joe McDonald in Beijing and Sangwon Yoon in Seoul contributed to this report.

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