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(News Focus) N. Korean leader in China to clinch deal on successor: analysts
By Sam Kim
SEOUL, Aug. 26 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il appears to be mainly trying to secure China's recognition of his son as his successor in his presumed visit Thursday to his country's neighboring benefactor, analysts said.

   Government sources in Seoul said earlier Thursday that Kim, 68, left on a train to China in what would be his second visit to North Korea's staunch ally this year if confirmed by Chinese or North Korean authorities.

   Kim may be accompanied by his third son, Jong-un, believed to be groomed to take over the North, a process that outsiders could get a glimpse into when the ruling Workers' Party holds a rare and crucial leadership meeting early next month.

   "The succession issue probably wasn't clearly set out in May" when Kim Jong-il visited China for a meeting with President Hu Jin-tao, Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, said. "This time, it appears that China has made up its mind about Kim's youngest son."

   During Kim's five-day trip to China in May, he agreed on a series of economic cooperation projects with President Hu.

   Kim Sung-joo, a political science professor at Seoul's Sungkyunkwan University, agreed, saying, "China now seems ready to embrace Kim Jong-un."

   Both analysts said Pyongyang probably offered a key step forward in its denuclearization efforts, a key issue to Beijing as the world's second largest economy tries to secure stability in its region.

   On Thursday, China's top nuclear delegate, Wu Dawei, was set to arrive in South Korea after having spent last week in Pyongyang to meet with his counterpart there and reportedly "reached a full consensus" on all matters of mutual concern.

   "China has seen the succession issue tied to the nuclear issue while the North hasn't," Yang said, expecting the leaders of the two countries to narrow their differences this week.

   North Korean and Chinese authorities have not yet confirmed Kim's trip, in line with their practice of announcing such a high-level visit only after it ends. If confirmed, Kim's trip will be his sixth since he took over from his father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994.

   The assumed visit comes as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is in Pyongyang on a private, humanitarian mission to secure the release of an American man imprisoned there for months.

   Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old from Boston, was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined an equivalent of US$700,000 for trespassing in January. Carter met with North Korea's nominal head of state after arriving Wednesday in Pyongyang on a private jet.

   It remains unclear whether Kim met with Carter before leaving for China. Kim met with former U.S. President Bill Clinton when he traveled to Pyongyang in August last year to successfully win the release of two U.S. journalists also imprisoned for illegal entry.

   "It may not matter whether Kim meets Carter or not at a time like this," Professor Kim said. "The relationship between North Korea and the United States is at its worst level in years, and any deal between Kim and Carter will have limited political impact."

   China is North Korea's foremost ideological and economic supporter. It fought on the side of North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce and has recently refrained from supporting allegations that Pyongyang is responsible for the sinking of a South Korean warship in March in the Yellow Sea.

   Kim Jong-il's visit may also bode well for the fate of four South Koreans and three Chinese fishermen held in North Korea after they alleged violated the country's eastern exclusive economic zone.

   China, through its embassy in Pyongyang, has called for their release on humanitarian grounds, but was apparently met with a refusal amid strained relations between the divided Koreas.

   samkim@yna.co.kr
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