North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il is visiting China for the second time in three months, and this time he’s thought to have taken his son and heir apparent along for the trip, South Korean media reported today.
The Yonhap News Agency, citing an official in Seoul who asked not to be identified, reported that Kim’s “special train” had left North Korea at around midnight Wednesday. Like his father, Kim Il-Sung, the dictator refuses to travel by plane — fearing that his many enemies might shoot him down — and only ever leaves his country in an armored locomotive.
The official said South Korean authorities were puzzled by the trip, noting that it was unprecedented for Kim to visit China twice in a year.
It is believed that Kim has headed to China, the impoverished dictatorship’s largest trade partner and aid supplier, to introduce his third and youngest son Kim Jong-un to the country’s leaders. The North Korean leader is believed to have suffered a stroke two years ago, notes the BBC. And during his last trip to China in May, when he met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, he was seen limping and dragging his left foot, the Bloomberg news agency reports.
The apparent meeting — China and North Korea never confirm Kim’s trips until he is safely back home — comes ahead of a crucial summit next month, where members of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea will elect new leaders. Kim Jong-Un, 27, is expected to be handed a choice position.
The surprise visit comes just a day after former U.S. President Jimmy Carter arrived in Pyongyang to seek the release of an American citizen jailed for illegally entering the country. Some analysts have suggested that freeing the prisoner may help ease growing friction between the dictatorship and the U.S. Tensions have mounted since the sinking of a South Korean warship in March. An international team of investigators blamed the North for the attack, which killed 46 sailors, saying it had torpedoed the Cheonan as it sat in South Korean waters.
However, other South Korean analysts believe the timing of Kim’s visit to China suggests the North is not yet ready to improve relations with the America. “Kim’s departure for China means Carter’s mission will be limited to bringing home [American citizen Aijalon Mahli] Gomes,” Inje University Professor Kim Yeon-Chul told Agence France-Presse.
Gomes was sentenced to eight years hard labor in April after he was caught crossing the border from China in late January. Concern has grown over Gomes’ health. The North Korean news agency KCNA reported in July that the 31-year-old Boston resident, who traveled to South Korea in his early 20s to teach English, had been hospitalized following a suicide attempt.