North Korean leader Kim Jong Il said to be on 3rd trip to important ally China in about a year

CHANGCHUN, China — Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was said to have visited an industrial city in northeastern China on Saturday and appeared headed to Beijing by train on the second day of a mysterious trip to his country’s most important ally.

Kim hasn’t made any public appearances since his apparent arrival in China on Friday, and it wasn’t known who he was meeting or the makeup of his entourage. His rare foreign visits have always been shrouded in secrecy, and North Korean and Chinese government and official media were mum.

( Kyodo News / Associated Press ) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, second from right, leaves a hotel in Mudanjiang in northeastern China Friday afternoon, May 20, 2011. Kim Jong Il, who rarely travels abroad, made an unusual third trip in just over a year Friday to his country’s main ally and benefactor, China, news agencies reported. The trip set off a media frenzy because many initially reported it was his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, who had crossed the border, a reflection of the difficulty of getting information from or about North Korea.

South Korea’s Yonhap News agency said Kim arrived in the city of Changchun by train early in the day and was shuttled by motorcade to the same state guesthouse where he had met with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a visit to the city in August.

A motorcade later left the guesthouse, known as the Nanhu Hotel, around 2 p.m. (0400 GMT) and headed toward the city’s train station, but journalists were barred from shooting pictures in the vicinity.

Yonhap later reported Kim’s train had passed the station in the city of Shenyang and was headed south toward Beijing, where he is expected to hold talks with Chinese leaders. Kim is believed to fear flying and maintains custom-built trains, protected by blast-proof armor and luxuriously appointed, that carry him on a secret network within North Korea and on trips across Russia and into China.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK obtained footage appearing to show Kim leaving his hotel in the northeastern Chinese city of Mudanjiang on Friday night before departing for Changchun under tight security.

Kim, with his thinning boufant hair and trademark green jumpsuit, can be seen in the grainy footage shaking hands and waving to Chinese officials before climbing into a limousine.

South Korean media had initially speculated that Kim’s son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, was either making a trip to China solo or accompanying his father.

The elder Kim, 69, appears to have recovered from a reported stroke in 2008 and has resumed steady visits to factories and farms around North Korea. But travel outside his home country is rare.

This trip, however, would be Kim’s third in just over a year to China, his country’s main diplomatic supporter and chief source of food and fuel assistance. North Korea struggles to feed its population and faces strong international pressure to end its nuclear weapons program. Kim’s visits to China are widely seen as a means to shore up support for his isolated regime and faltering economy.

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

Kim’s past state visits — most recently in May and August of last year — were confirmed by China only after they finished.

China’s official Global Times newspaper on Saturday published foreign media accounts of Kim’s visit — without domestic confirmation — and in an editorial said the world should be grateful that Beijing maintains open channels of communication with Pyongyang.

The U.S. and South Korea should appreciate that “if China were to have put pressure on North Korea as they do, these precious channels might have been cut long ago,” said the paper, which is published by the ruling Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said he had no information on any North Korean officials visiting China, but said U.S. officials would be visiting the North from Tuesday to Saturday to meet with their counterparts in Pyongyang and evaluate the country’s food needs.

The delegation including food security experts, was being led by Robert King, the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, and Agency for International Development Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance Jon Brause.

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.

The U.S., like other international donors, distrusts the secretive North Korean government, which has pursued illicit nuclear weapons and missile programs despite its chronic food shortages.

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