- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2010


BEIJING (AP) — Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was traveling Tuesday toward Beijing for talks with top leaders on his first trip abroad in years to seek support from his impoverished nation’s chief backer, media reports said.

No official announcements have been made about Kim’s trip, which began Monday, amid tensions over his regime’s nuclear weapons program and the North’s suspected role in the sinking of a South Korean navy ship.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Kim visited Tuesday factories in an industrial zone where Japanese and South Korean firms have operations, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Dalian, where the North Korean leader stayed in a swank hotel on Monday night after arriving from North Korea by luxury train.

He was seen by reporters in the port city getting into a car and then was driven away in a 10-vehicle motorcade.

In Beijing, Kim is expected to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders. North Korean media typically report on his journeys after he returns home, and China’s Foreign Ministry refused to confirm whether Kim was in the country.

South Korean media reported Kim dined with provincial officials and that his train left Dalian on Tuesday evening and appeared to be heading to Beijing.

The trip is Kim’s first since he traveled to China in 2006 and only the fifth since he took over power from his father in 1994.

It comes amid speculation that North Korea’s absolute ruler may heed calls from Beijing and elsewhere to return to negotiations on ending the country’s nuclear weapons program.

Overshadowing the visit, however, was speculation Kim’s hardline communist regime may have torpedoed the South Korean warship in March.

In Seoul on Tuesday, President Lee Myung-bak said the sinking of the Cheonan warship was not a “simple accident,” as officials inched closer to blaming North Korea for the incident, in which 46 sailors were killed.

Lee ordered a thorough review of South Korea’s military readiness and called North Korea’s military “the most belligerent forces” while stopping short of directly naming the North as a suspect in the March 26 disaster.

However, he made it clear for the first time that he saw a North Korean link in the sinking, which followed an explosion in disputed waters near the Koreas’ maritime border.

If South Korea declares Pyongyang responsible for the sinking, it could look to China to back new United Nations sanctions aimed at punishing the North. China likely would be reluctant to support such measures, fearing they could spark unrest on its border.

Kim’s visit may help reassert traditional ties between the communist neighbors, who once termed their relationship as close as “lips and teeth.”

In Seoul, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said it summoned Chinese Ambassador Zhang Xinsen Monday and asked Beijing to brief Seoul about Kim’s visit.

Separately, South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek met with Zhang on Tuesday and called on Beijing to play a “responsible role” amid the North-South tensions, according to his spokesman Chun Hae-sung. Chun did not elaborate or say whether China was being asked to convey a specific message to Pyongyang.

The sensitive timing of the visit and lack of advance notice from Beijing drew criticism from some South Koreans.

“I think it’s disappointing and worrisome for China to accept Kim Jong Il’s visit,” Chung Mong-joon, head of the ruling conservative Grand National Party, told party members on Monday, according to a statement. “Chinese leaders must convey our concerns and anger” to Kim over the ship sinking, Chung was quoted as saying.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu fended off repeated questions about Kim’s presence and arrangements for the visit, saying only that: “The arrangement of receiving a foreign leader is always decided through bilateral consultations.”

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 traveled to Dalian on Monday after a luxury 17-car train carrying him pulled into the Chinese border town of Dandong, according to South Korean and Japanese media reports. Kim is known to shun air travel.

After Kim left the five-star Furama Hotel on Tuesday, police briefly detained photographers and TV camera crews, including one from Associated Press Television News, at the scene and asked the camera crews and photographers to delete images and video.

By Tuesday afternoon, security at the hotel was significantly reduced, suggesting Kim may have left. From Monday, the hotel had barred all other guests and hung white sheets over lobby windows to block the view from outside.

Associated Press writers Kwang-tae Kim and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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