A special train from North Korea arrived in a Chinese border city early yesterday amid speculation of a visit to the country by Kim Jong Il, a news report said, though the reclusive communist leader's whereabouts remained unclear.
A possible visit comes as the United States and regional powers including China are pressing nuclear-armed North Korea to rejoin stalled negotiations aimed at ending its atomic weapons programs.
The train that arrived in Dandong at about 2:50 a.m. local time (1850 GMT; 2:50 p.m. EDT) appeared to be carrying Kim but could also be an advance train preceding a trip, Yonhap news agency reported, quoting an anonymous South Korean government official. It was not confirmed whether Kim was aboard, Yonhap said.
Speculation by media, analysts and South Korea's government of a trip to China by Kim has increased in recent days. South Korea's presidential office told reporters Wednesday there was a high possibility a visit was in the works. The reclusive Kim rarely travels abroad and only under tight security. He last visited China in January 2006. The National Intelligence Service, South Korea's main spy agency, said it was checking the Yonhap report. An official in the office of President Lee Myung-bak said South Korea is closely monitoring the situation, though it has not obtained specific information. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the issue's sensitivity.
Kim, who alternates between hard-line and concessionary approaches to the outside world, could give China a diplomatic gift by promising to return to the Beijing-hosted disarmament talks in exchange for Chinese aid to resolve its chronic food shortage and economic difficulties.
As the North's key ally and biggest aid provider, China is widely seen as the country with the most clout with Pyongyang. Its influence is seen as key to getting North Korea to return to the six-nation talks that involve the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.
North Korea quit the forum last year and conducted a second underground nuclear test, resulting in tighter U.N. sanctions. The regime has demanded they be lifted and called for peace talks formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War before it returns.