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(News Focus) N. Korean leader's tireless train ride indicates improving health
By Kim Kwang-tae
SEOUL, May 22 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, long known for his frail health, has traveled tirelessly by train since Friday without spending a night in a hotel en route to eastern China, demonstrating that his health may have improved to the extent that he can sustain three days of train ride.

   The 69-year-old Kim, who suffered a stroke in 2008, crossed the border into China on Friday before heading to China's northeastern city of Mudanjiang where he toured a park and a lake that signify the anti-Japanese movement by his late father and North Korean founder Kim Il-sung.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's special train. (Kyodo-Yonhap file photo)

Kim went on to make an overnight train trip to Changchun, where he visited a car plant, before heading for eastern China, probably Yangzhou, near Shanghai, via Shenyang.

   All told, Kim will have traveled about 2,750 kilometers if he were to reach Yangzhou, as expected, late Sunday night. Including a return trip, the distance of his train trip may exceed 5,000 km.

   Following the 2008 stroke, Kim had appeared noticeably gaunt in public appearances, but photos of recent public activities indicate that his health is on a recovery curve.

   In a string of photos released by the North's official media, the iron-fisted and reclusive ruler looked fatter than in the past and was even seen putting on elevated shoes. He used to wear sneakers and flat-soled shoes in the wake of his stroke.

   South Korean officials and experts have said Kim's health condition is not that poor and he is still in charge. South Korea and other regional powers keep a close eye on his health as his sudden demise could destabilize the country with nuclear ambitions.

   Kim's arrival in Changchun had touched off speculation that he may hold summit talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the city's South Lake Hotel, the venue of their previous meeting in August last year.

   Several hours later, however, Kim got back on his special train and spent another night as it passed through Shenyang in China's northeast region and headed south toward eastern China.

   According to sources, the train is expected to arrive in Yangzhou, adjacent to China's economic capital of Shanghai, on Sunday evening, meaning that Kim would spend more than 24 hours in his train.

   Though his train is believed to be equipped with a number of special amenities, it may not be easy even for young and healthy men to spend several nights on the train, doctors and health experts in Seoul said.

   Kim's tight schedule is widely seen as his attempt to dispel lingering questions on his health and tour a vast swath of China to witness economic development in China.

   Kim "wants to show through this trip that there is no health problem" with him, said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul.

   A diplomat based in Beijing also said Kim Jong-il will be able to eliminate the lingering outside suspicion of his health through this trip to China, his third in slightly over one year.

   "Speculation about his improving health has been occasionally made. Considering his latest travel speed and gestures, Kim must have considerable confidence in his health," said the diplomat, asking to remain anonymous.