BEIJING // The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, began an unannounced visit to China yesterday, renewing hope for the resumption of long-stalled nuclear talks. China and North Korea went through extensive efforts to keep Mr Kim's trip a secret, but NHK television in Japan was able to film Mr Kim getting into a car in front of a hotel and the footage was aired in the evening.
Mr Kim, who wore his trademark khaki suit, was surrounded by plain-clothed Chinese security agents. A diplomatic source also told the official Yonhap news agency in South Korea that they were "personally witnessing Mr Kim" at the hotel. The special train that carried Mr Kim passed through the Chinese city of Dandong, on the Chinese-North Korean border, at 5.20am, not a scheduled time for regular trains that link the countries.
About 200 Chinese guards were despatched to the railway at the border city and lined the rails at two to three-metre intervals, securing the area. The Zhonglian Hotel is a major tourist inn that overlooks the Sino-North Korea Friendship Bridge over which Mr Kim's train would have passed. Hotel management abruptly asked guests to vacate their rooms and stopped receiving new guests after Saturday night.
The move was seen as unusual because it was the major Labour Day holiday in China and the hotel was crowded with tourists. With Mr Kim's visit to China - his first in four years - international news outlets despatched reporters to the border. Two Japanese reporters filming the bridge before Mr Kim's train passed were briefly detained by Chinese security guards. At 9.40am, Mr Kim arrived in Dalian, a city 674km south-west of the border, in a 20-limousine convoy and entered the downtown Fulihua Hotel, where Mr Kim was filmed by a Japanese media outlet. Traffic in the city was blocked for about an hour and a traffic police officer said it was "due to Chairman Kim's visit".
Although Mr Kim's visits to China are relatively rare - the last one was in January 2006 - Chinese state-controlled media outlets, including the official Xinhua news agency, kept silent about the North Koreal leader's arrival. "It's not strange. Normally, the visit is done secretly. It's the same as before," said Lu Chao, a Chinese expert on North Korea at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, in the province where Mr Kim is believed to be staying.
"China and North Korea announce it only after Kim Jong Il returns to his country." Zhang Liangui, an expert on Korean affairs at the Central Party School, an elite institute in Beijing that educates Communist Party cadre, agreed. "North Korea is a special country. It's tradition that Mr Kim's visit would not be open to the outside world," he said. Both Mr Zhang and Mr Lu denied having any personal knowledge of Mr Kim's visit.
South Korean media said the recent sinking of a South Korean navy warship - possibly by a North Korean torpedo - would be a leading topic on the agenda in Mr Kim's meeting with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao. They said the North wants to defend its innocence in front of its major economic benefactor and ideological guardian. But analysts downplayed that view. "That's a South Korean priority. North Korean priorities with China are different," said an intelligence expert working at the South Korean government. "Mr Kim's visit will hinge upon the discussion on North Korea's returning to the nuclear talks and seeking China's economic aid."
Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, agreed. "China and North Korea will discuss the six-party nuclear talks. And Mr Kim will express his will to return to the nuclear talks. There is little possibility for the sinking of the South Korean navy ship to be discussed on the table, at least not openly." Seoul and Washington have been expecting the North Korean leader to visit China for a long time because the list of Sino-Korean agenda items has accumulated to a point requiring high-level consultation. Besides the issues of nuclear weapons and economic aid, North Korea is also believed to be seeking Chinese support of Mr Kim's choice of his third son as the next leader.
China's socialist ideology disapproves of a family handover of power. The intelligence expert in the South Korean government said the timing of Mr Kim's visit is "good because all important key players in Chinese politics are currently in Beijing. And the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference will kick off in New York". North Korea is expected to be high on the agenda at the UN meeting.
In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the NPT to develop nuclear weapons, which it demonstrated with nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Chinese analysts are cautiously optimistic about the prospect of North Korea's declaration of returning to the nuclear talks with Mr Kim's visit, citing an Asian tradition of bringing a gift when one visits another's house. "North Korea so far has been noncommittal on returning to the talks. But if Chairman Kim comes to China and if he doesn't make the commitment, then it is not our Asian tradition," Mr Zhang said.