A special train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-il arrived in China via Tumen, a northeastern Chinese border city, at 6:20 am. on May 20 (local time). The visit came unexpectedly in nine months after Kim’s last trip there. Initially, his son and heir-apparent Kim Jong-un had been thought to be in the train. Entering China via Tumen was a new choice for Kim. Last August, he chose the city as a route to return to the North after his sixth trip to China. Furthermore, Kim’s whereabouts were more difficult to track over the weekend, as Kim bypassed stops most observers expected him to make, while pausing at others he had never visited. Kim had been expected to make a direct visit to Beijing to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao, but his train passed through instead, heading for Yangzhou. Kim’s heavily guarded train entered Yangzhou Station around 7:55 p.m. on May 22 night (local time). Yangzhou was Jiang’s hometown and is where Hu spent his younger years up to his early teens. In Yangzhou, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, who was Kim Jong-il’s father, met with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin during a trip to China in October 1991. Kim Jong-il also visited the city in 2001.
Kim met with Jiang and requested economic assistance and discussed the imminent succession of Kim Jong-un, his youngest son and heir apparent.
After finishing a relaxing day in Yangzhou, Kim left there at 8:30 a.m. on May 24 local time and arrived in Nanjing roughly two hours later. Kim ate lunch at the guesthouse which his father stayed at during a visit in 1991.
After lunch, Kim boarded his special train and headed northwest. After Kim left, the Yangzhou State Guesthouse was still adorned with welcome messages on banners and electronic billboards. The suites Kim and his party occupied usually cost between 18,800 yuan (US$2,890) and 36,260 yuan for an overnight stay.
The meeting in Yangzhou was not made public nor confirmed by Chinese or North Korean authorities. Locals in the area and other Chinese, however, have criticized Kim’s trip to China online. On one of China’s popular social networking services, Sina Weibo, several Internet users supported economic cooperation between the two countries, but others were hostile. “Every time Kim Jong-il comes to town, the train schedules become a mess,” said one user, adding, “It’s so annoying.” Other users saying Kim’s visit was “a hassle” and that he had come to China again “for food.”
Anyway, the North Korean leader made a U-turn late on the fifth day of his trip, departing from Nanjing in his heavily guarded 25-car train and entering the Chinese capital around 9 a.m. on May 25 (local time), the sixth day of his visit to China.
Kim Jong-il met with Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. After the highlight of Kim Jong-il’s week-long trip to China, a meeting with President Hu Jintao was made in the Great Hall of the People on May 25 night.
China’s state broadcaster China Central Television confirmed Kim’s meeting with Hu late on May 26, after Kim had left Beijing. The broadcaster said Kim expressed a wish to resume stalled six-party denuclearization talks “soon.” It also reported that Hu urged Kim to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula during their talks.
Kim’s armored private train left Beijing around 2:20 p.m. on May 26, and headed north. Kim was thought to be headed to Dandong, Liaoning Province, which is 13 hours from Beijing by rail.
For a 69-year-old stroke survivor, Kim displayed rigorous stamina. Kim was said to have moved around outside during the day, while his train carried him through China during at night. Kim has been showing signs of improved health in photos recently released by the North’s official news agency. Bystanders who managed a glimpse of Kim said he looked “robust” and walked without stiffness, seemingly recovered from a stroke in 2008.
On the background of Kim’s sudden visit to China, analysts and diplomatic sources in South Korea believe that Kim’s visit was rushed due to the urgency of the food crisis within North Korea, implying the severity of food shortages that the North is experiencing. The leadership in the North is known to be striving to meet its pledge to make a “strong and prosperous” nation next year, which is the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. But they also believe Kim made the trip to get more Chinese support to bequeath power to Kim Jong-un.
Stalled discussion toward resuming the six-party talks also could have prompted Kim’s unexpected visit. Last month, China, the chair of the multinational talks on the North’s denuclearization, proposed a three-stage formula to restart the six-party talks - inter - Korean talks, Pyongyang-Washington talks, then six-party talks. Seoul, Washington and Tokyo have responded positively to it.
Pyongyang, hoping to return to the six-party talks, has yet to respond to Seoul’s call in January for inter-Korean talks and the North may need to coordinate with China about the issue. Last year, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak cut off most trade with North Korea in May, accusing Kim’s regime of torpedoing a naval warship, killing 46 South Korean sailors.
Anyway during the visit, Kim seems to have got almost all that he wanted from the trip, according to diplomatic officials in China: economic and political support for North Korea.
According to the sources, he discussed the power transfer to his son Kim Jong-un with Hu and requested his support. During the meeting, Kim and Hu recommitted themselves to economic agreements, such as North Korea agreeing to let China use its Rajin Port, guaranteeing its access to the East Sea.
Although Beijing officially welcomes the succession of Kim Jong-un, its reported rebuffing of a solo trip to China by the heir apparent suggests a more complicated reaction.
Last October, after Kim Jong-un was made a four-star general and given a high position within the Workers’ Party, China sent a delegation of representatives and congratulated “the new leadership” of North Korea. In February, Meng Jianzhu, minister of the public security of China, also offered congratulatory words to Kim Jong-il for “solving the succession problem well.”
However, analysts now believe that those statements were to maintain the facade of good relations and to maintain China’s power over the North, and that the younger power elite in China does not welcome the 20-something Kim Jong-un taking over North Korea.
“The leadership in China is very doubtful of the third-generation succession in North Korea,” said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute. “They are releasing statements that satisfy North Korea just enough in order to maintain the influence they have over the North.”
This has led some to believe that Kim Jong-il met with Jiang Zemin - who still wields clout behind the scenes in Chinese politics - after intentionally bypassing Beijing and the current authorities in power.
Analysts also see significance in Kim’s visit occurring at the same time Wen is in Japan talking with South Korea’s president. They say Beijing wants to boost its diplomatic influence in inter-Korean relations by talking to both Koreas at once. Ministry of Unification spokesman Chun Hae-sung said that although the government was aware of Kim’s visit to China, confirmations could not be made until North Korea or China officially reports the visit.
Actually this visit would feature a Kim-Hu summit at the same time that President Lee Myung-bak plans to meet Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during the Korea-Japan-China summit held in Japan, which some observers speculate could be behind the real intention of Kim Jong-il’s visit to China.