Kim Jong-il is in China? We have no information on that.

The Monitor's Beijing bureau chief hit a wall of official secrecy regarding the China visit of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. It was only the beginning of a tough day of reporting.

By , Staff Writer

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    North Korean leader Kim Jong il, wearing a pair of glasses, gets into a vehicle as he leaves a hotel in Dalian, northeastern China, on Monday.
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Casting around today for a suitable subject on which to blog, I thought I might bring you up to date on the mystery visit that Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s “Dear Leader” is currently making to China.

But “mystery” is the key word. So intense is Mr. Kim’s obsession with secrecy, and so willing is the Chinese government to humor him, that the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told reporters yesterday with a straight face that she knew nothing about any such visit.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap, always well plugged in to sources inside South Korea’s intelligence services, reported the Kim visited an industrial park in northeastern China and the port city of Tianjin and was on his way to Beijing. But what exactly he is up to remains a matter of speculation.

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IN PICTURES: Shanghai World Expo 2010 at night

Not much to report, then, beyond my last blog on the subject on Monday. So I thought I would instead explore the reasons behind the disappointing visitor numbers at the Shanghai World Expo, which has been drawing only half the expected crowds since it opened Saturday.

Please apply to ask a question

Oh dear. Bad idea. The Expo authorities appear to have taken a leaf out of Pyongyang’s public relations playbook.

An innocent call to the press office did not last long enough even to pose any questions. Expo spokesmen do not do interviews over the phone, my assistant was told by an official phone answerer. I should come to Shanghai, but not before filling in an interview application form, downloadable from the Internet.

Going all the way to Shanghai, 915 miles away, did not seem worth it to ask a few questions, especially since I was there to look at the Expo site just last week. But I filled in a form (Name, sex, media, Interview Plan) on the off chance I might get some answers by e-mail.

Fat chance, I fear. At the foreign press center at the Beijing Olympics two years ago, a friend of mine who worked there told me how he watched smiling young female receptionists take sheaves of interview requests from unsuspecting journalists and drop them straight into the bin.

Expo officials have not hidden the disappointing visitor numbers over the opening weekend – a three-day national holiday in China – which they attribute to the hot weather and people’s fear of long lines.

Organizers have predicted 70 million visitors over the next six months, which would require 380,000 people to come each day. On Sunday, which saw the highest attendance so far, only 215,000 showed up.

I’m wondering where the 70 million estimate came from (and I asked that question in my Interview Plan). The last World’s Fair in Zaragoza, Spain, attracted only 5.7 million visitors. OK, that Expo lasted only three months, and Zaragoza is not Shanghai and there are an awful lot of curious Chinese who might want to come, but 70 million does seem an ambitious target.

Especially as summer is coming, and Shanghai is only going to get hotter. I suspect the best use to which I will be able to put my interview application form will be to fold it into a makeshift paper hat when I visit the Expo in June, to shield my face from the sun.

STOP PRESS

Just before I went to bed on Wednesday, I checked my e-mail and found the following from the Communication and Promotion Department of the Expo.

“Expo has just past its first 5 days, it's not a good time to make a prediction again. Shanghai never gives up holding an Expo which attracts 70 million visitors. Thank you for your attention.”

I can’t say that answers any of my questions, but at least they acknowledged that I had posed them….

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IN PICTURES: Shanghai World Expo 2010 at night

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