North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il apparently headed home after a secretive and surprise trip that reportedly included a meeting with China's top leader to appeal for diplomatic and financial support for a succession plan involving his youngest son.
Reporters have followed a motorcade — apparently used by the reclusive Kim — around several cities in northeast China. The 35-vehicle convoy accompanied by police cars with flashing lights was seen headed to the train station in Changchun on Saturday.
Kim rarely leaves North Korea and when he does he travels by special train. South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Sunday that Kim is believed to have traveled to Yanbian, a Korean autonomous prefecture in the far northeastern Chinese province of Jilin bordering North Korea, after leaving Changchun's railway station.
Yonhap cited an unidentified diplomatic source in Yanji, capital of Yanbian, as saying that Yanbian's local government was busy preparing to accept a visitor who it says is likely to be Kim. Yonhap said Kim has never visited Yanbian.
North Korea does not announce Kim's trips until he returns home, and China has refused to say if he is in the country, even though a Japanese television station had a grainy picture of him.
Son goes along
Kim was reportedly accompanied by his son, Kim Jong Un, believed to be in his 20s. Many North Korea watchers predict the son will be appointed to a key party position at a ruling Workers' Party meeting early next month — the first such gathering in decades.
To pull off the event with sufficient fanfare, North Korea will need Chinese aid, particularly following the devastating floods that battered the country's northwest this month, analysts said.
"The convention needs to be festive with the party giving out food or normalizing day-to-day life for its people, but with the recent flood damages they are not able to," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul.
"The most important thing on Kim's agenda is scoring Chinese aid, which will ensure that the meeting will be well received by the people."
Asked whether Kim was visiting China, a duty officer with the press office of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said: "China and North Korea consistently maintain high-level contacts. We will release the relevant information in good time."
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi sidestepped a question from his visiting Japanese counterpart about widespread reports saying Kim was visiting China, Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Satoru Satoh said. Yang made no response to the query but said China will continue cooperating with Japan on the North Korea issue, Satoh said.
Succession likely discussed
South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper and Yonhap both reported that Kim was believed to have met Chinese President Hu Jintao in Changchun on Friday.
The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper carried a similar report, saying the two are believed to have discussed the North's succession, the resumption of six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program, and ways to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation.
China, as North Korea's biggest diplomatic ally and a major source of food aid and oil, would expect to be kept in the loop about major political transitions in the North, but the Beijing leadership is not likely to be enthusiastic about the prospect of another dynastic succession next door, said Zhu Feng, director of Peking University's Center for International and Strategic Studies.
Kim also badly needs Chinese aid because of flooding earlier this month that damaged or destroyed more than 7,000 homes, and inundated 17,800 acres (7,200 hectares) of farmland close to the border with China, the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported this week.
KCNA said China has already agreed to deliver some aid to help North Korea cope with the disaster but didn't give specifics.
The North faces chronic food shortages and has relied on outside aid to feed much of its 24 million people since a famine that is believed to have killed as many as 2 million people in the 1990s.
In an attempt to improve its meager economy, it has experimented with limited market reforms and sought foreign investment, mostly from China and South Korea. But tensions with the South have caused trade and joint economic projects with the South to wither and raised the importance of Pyongyang's ties to Beijing.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Scott McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.