Kim Jong-il's China Trip Likely To Be Delayed Until Later in April
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Amid widespread speculation over what is believed to be an imminent trip to China, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il remained in Pyongyang this week, engaging in various activities. It was widely expected until early this week that the North Korean leader might visit the North's closest ally soon but his anticipated trip to Beijing appears to have been pushed back.
Speculation has been rampant on the possibility of a trip by Kim to China since South Korea's presidential office said early last week there was a high possibility the visit was in the works. The reclusive Kim rarely travels abroad and only under tight security. He last visited China in January 2006.
Diplomatic sources in Seoul and Beijing said the North Korean leader will probably travel to China in late April given various circumstances and schedules at home and abroad. In reality, Kim engaged in activities at home in recent days, participating in a dinner party welcoming the new Chinese ambassador to Pyongyang and attending art performances.
Kim Jong-il hosted a dinner party on April 3 for new Chinese ambassador Liu Hongcai and Chinese embassy officials, reports from Beijing and Pyongyang said, fueling speculation that Kim's anticipated visit to China is being delayed. Both Xinhua and North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) carried reports on Kim's attendance at the dinner party.
The reports said Choe Thae-bok, Central Committee secretary of the North's ruling Workers' Party, and First-vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju were among the attendants at the dinner.
"When Kim Jong-il appeared in the banquet hall together with the new Chinese ambassador, all the participants warmly welcomed him with highest tribute as he has made an undying contribution to boosting the DPRK-China friendship," according to the KCNA.
The news agency said on April 3 the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of (North) Korea (WPK) and the DPRK (North Korea) National Defense Commission (NDC) gave a banquet on the assumption of office as new Chinese ambassador to the DPRK.
Among those others present were senior officials of the WPK Central Committee including Kim Ki-nam and Kim Jong-gak, a member of the NDC and first-vice director of the General Political Bureau of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA), the KCNA said. Also present there by invitation were staff members of the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang and the Chinese Tianjin women's volleyball team on a visit to the DPRK, it said.
The KCNA said that Kim Ki-nam and Amb. Liu made toasts, expressing "the steadfast will of the parties and peoples of the two countries to further develop and consolidate generation after generation the traditional DPRK-China friendship provided and fostered by the leaders of the elder generation of the two countries."
In another public event, Kim attended a performance staged by the Pyongyang Mansudae Art Troupe, according to North Korean news media. No date was given for the performance, though North Korean media usually report on Kim's activities a day after they take place.
The performance, however, is believed to have been held on April 2, given that North Korea's news media usually covers its leader's public activities a day later. Pyongyang is thought to be the likely venue as the report suggested the performance was held before a large audience.
A possible visit by the 68-year-old Kim would come as the United States and regional powers including China are pressing North Korea to rejoin stalled negotiations aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs.
On April 3, a news report said that a special train arrived before dawn in the Chinese city of Dandong, predicting that the train might be carrying Kim or could be an advance train preceding a trip. But later, it was reported that the train was carrying cargo.
To ensure security, Kim's train travels with two others, the first one running ahead of his to check the safety of railway lines while the second runs behind his and carries security agents, a local daily reported last year, citing an analysis by South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities.
Kim's train is equipped with armor and has conference rooms, reception halls, bedrooms, wall-mounted TVs and modern communications equipment like satellite phones, enabling him to get briefed on major issues and issue orders while traveling, according to various other reports.
Kim, who alternates between hard-line and conciliatory gestures to the outside world, could give China a diplomatic gift by promising to return to the Beijing-hosted disarmament talks in exchange for massive economic aid to resolve his country's 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 involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.
North Korea quit the international forum last year after launching a rocket in April and conducting a second underground nuclear test in May, resulting in tighter U.N. sanctions.
Diplomatic sources said recently that Kim Jong-il's trip to China may be delayed until late April as Chinese President Hu Jintao will visit Washington to attend the nuclear security summit April 12-13 and tour three South American nations, including Brazil. "Kim's trip will likely take place sometime after April 18 when Hu finishes his overseas trips," according to a diplomatic source.
The Chinese government may also have been reluctant to meet with Kim at this particularly sensitive time when South Korea is wrapped up with the deadly sinking of a warship in the disputed waters bordering North Korea, according to an informed source.
"There was no clear conclusion whether the North was directly or indirectly involved in the recent sinking of the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan, or not involved at all," the source said. "In such sensitive circumstances, the Chinese leadership would have to consider how the summit would appear to others."
Meanwhile, the North's Supreme People's Assembly will open a session on April 9 to deal with major state affairs including its budget this year.
On April 6, South Korea's spy chief said North Korean leader Kim Jong-il could make a trip to China late this month, considering the schedule of China's president and a key event in Pyongyang set for next week.
Won Se-hoon, head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), was quoted as telling the parliament's intelligence committee that Kim could travel to China between April 25-28, considering his likely attendance at his late father's birthday ceremony on April 15 and the overseas travel schedule of Chinese President Hu Jintao, said Chung Chin-sup of the Grand National Party, who was present at the meeting.
Regarding the mounting speculation about North Korea's possible involvement in last month's sinking of a South Korean Navy warship, Won told the committee that it is difficult to conclude that the North was involved in the naval disaster, according to Rep. Chung.
The Cheonan, a 1,200-ton navy corvette, broke in two and sank in the Yellow Sea after an unexplained late night explosion on March 26. Fifty-eight of the 104 crew members were rescued from the vessel as it sank, but the others went missing. Two of the sailors were found dead on April 3 and April 7, respectively in the stern of the sunken ship, leaving 44 still missing.
The cause of the disaster, one of the worst in the country's history, has yet to be confirmed, feeding speculation running rampant because the vessel went down near the tense maritime border with North Korea.
"There have been no particular movements in North Korea before and after the sinking of the Cheonan. Without any physical evidence, we can't conclusively say that the North was involved," Won was quoted by another committee member as saying. "Even if the North was involved, such an attack could not have been carried out without the approval of NDC Chairman Kim Jong-il."