(3rd LD) N. Korean leader's visit to China appears imminent: Seoul officials
SEOUL, March 31 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is highly likely to visit China soon, a presidential spokeswoman and other government officials in Seoul said Wednesday, a trip that could boost prospects for the reopening of international talks on Pyongyang's nuclear programs.
"We believe the chances are fairly high of Chairman Kim visiting China," an official said on condition of anonymity, referring to Kim's official title as chairman of the National Defense Commission. "We're all paying attention as it appears imminent."
Presidential spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye gave credence to the view, saying, "There is a high possibility of it and we are keeping a close watch."
Another senior official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that South Korea has "some intelligence, albeit not decisive." "There are indications," he said, citing unusual activities near the Chinese border city of Dandong, North Korea's border areas, and the Chinese capital of Beijing. He would not elaborate.
North Korea watchers believe the trip may take place as early as this week as Kim will have to return home before the North's legislature convenes Friday next week.
Officials said an advance team of North Korean officials may already be in China to arrange Kim's trip there.
Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency reported earlier Wednesday that a North Korean military delegation, led by Maj. Gen. An Yong-gi, held a meeting Tuesday in Beijing with Xu Caihou, a member of the political bureau of the Communist Party and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of China.
Diplomatic sources said that there have been cases of Kim visiting China about three days after an advance team visited the neighboring nation.
Kim's trip to China has been anticipated since the beginning of the year as his communist nation suffers from an enduring recession caused by years of international sanctions and embargoes, as well as its recent currency reform, a failed effort that has reportedly led to skyrocketing inflation.
A trip to China, if realized, could be a sign of North Korea returning to six-nation nuclear negotiations in the near future as Kim will have to offer a gift to Beijing, host of the six-party talks, in exchange for the economic assistance he seeks from China.
The talks involve both South and North Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia, and were last held in December 2008.
Pyongyang earlier said it will not return to the talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs until the start of discussions for a peace treaty and the removal of U.N. sanctions.