- Associated Press - Sunday, May 22, 2011

BEIJING (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly headed for eastern China by train Sunday on a trip to his main ally, and a Chinese leader told South Korea’s president that Beijing invited Mr. Kim to learn from Chinese reforms.

Mr. Kim, whose rare foreign trips are cloaked in secrecy, was traveling to Yangzhou, west of Shanghai, the Yonhap news agency and broadcaster YTN said, citing diplomatic sources.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at their current meeting in Japan that Beijing invited Mr. Kim to study China’s economic reforms, Mr. Lee’s office said in a statement. It did not say whether Mr. Wen confirmed that Mr. Kim already had arrived in China.

“We invited (Kim) to give (the North Koreans) a chance to understand the Chinese development and use it for their own development,” Mr. Wen was quoted as saying. Phone calls to a press official with Mr. Lee were not immediately answered.

Mr. Kim apparently entered China on Friday and visited an industrial city in the northeast on what is believed to be his third trip to the country in 13 months. Such visits are seen as a means to shore up support for his isolated government and faltering economy.

North Korea struggles to feed its population and faces international pressure to end its nuclear weapons program.

China and North Korea want to resume six-nation talks on ending the North’s nuclear programs in return for economic aid and other concessions. Fellow participants South Korea and the United States say the North first must exhibit sincerity toward disarmament.

North Korean and Chinese official media have been silent about Mr. Kim’s travels, and China has confirmed his past official visits — most recently in May and August of last year — only after he returned home.

Employees who answered the phone at the Yangzhou and Shanghai railway stations and the Yangzhou city hall said they had no information about a possible visit by Mr. Kim. They refused to give their names.

A visit to Yangzhou, a tourist spot on the Yangtze River, could have special symbolism for Mr. Kim. It would come 20 years after Chinese state media say his father and predecessor, North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, held talks there with China’s then-president, Jiang Zemin.

South Korean broadcaster YTN said Mr. Kim would visit sites in Yangzhou linked to the solar power industry. It said he also plans to travel to Shanghai, which he visited in 2001, to look at China’s economic reforms.

On Saturday, Mr. Kim visited the industrial center of Changchun, Yonhap said. He met there in August with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Mr. Kim is believed to fear flying and travels in specially outfitted, armored trains within North Korea and on trips across Russia and into China.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK obtained a grainy video appearing to show Kim in the northeastern Chinese city of Mudanjiang on Friday. He was shown shaking hands and waving to Chinese officials before climbing into a limousine.

South Korean media initially suggested Mr. Kim’s son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, either was making a trip to China alone or was accompanying his father.

The U.S. State Department said it had no information on North Korean officials visiting China. U.S. officials plan to visit the North starting Tuesday to evaluate its food needs.

North Korea appealed for aid in January. A U.N. assessment completed in March said 6 million people — a quarter of the population — need emergency help after bad weather hit crops.

Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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