North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has traveled to China on a rare trip outside his country, a South Korean military intelligence official said Tuesday. The official, who told The Associated Press that the information came from intelligence sources inside China, said Kim entered that country sometime Tuesday. The official spoke on condition his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the information.
"We confirmed he went to China by train," the official said. "We don't know why." The only rail connection between the two countries is via the Chinese city of Dandong in Liaoning province. China's Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment when asked about the visit. Kim, who seldom travels abroad, last visited China in April 2004 for a summit with Chinese leaders. North Korea and China, both communist countries, have traditionally had close ties.
Chinese President Hu Jintao visited North Korea in October. South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported earlier in a dispatch out of Beijing that the reclusive North Korean leader's train had crossed the border into eastern China amid tight security. The agency did not say where it got its information.
YTN television, a 24-hour South Korean news channel, a senior South Korean government official it did not identify as casting doubt on a Kim visit, saying the possibility is "low."
South Korea's government reacted cautiously. The Foreign Ministry said it was in the process of verifying whether Kim was in China. Repeated calls to the National Security Council and Unification Ministry rang unanswered Tuesday.
The visit comes at a sensitive time for North Korea, which remains at odds with the United States over stalled international talks aimed at getting Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the North has many pending issues to discuss with China, including the nuclear row and U.S. financial sanctions against the country. "As North Korea believes it is difficult to resolve its relations with the United States, it is trying to find a breakthrough in those with China as Beijing is a key party in the nuclear issue," Koh said. "North Korea has exhausted all of its available cards." China is under pressure from the United States and other governments to use its leverage as North Korea's main ally and aid donor to push Pyongyang for concessions.
North Korea and the United States have been engaged since 2003 in multi-party talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programs. Though the talks also involve China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, their progress is usually determined by the existing level of level of tension between North Korea and Washington, reports the AP. I.L.