Did North Korea's Kim Jong-il take a secret train to China?

North Korea’s secretive leader Kim Jong-il may be visiting China, as reports emerged of a ‘special’ train – his preferred means of travel – at the border. Kim may seek his powerful ally’s help on dwindling food aid.

NTV Japan/AP
In this image made from television, a train believed reportedly carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-il crosses a bridge from North Korea into the Chinese border town of Dandong, Monday.
Kyodo News/AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong il, wearing a pair of glasses, gets into a vehicle as he leaves a hotel in Dalian, northeastern China, this year.

The leader of the world’s most unpredictable nuclear armed state, North Korea, which is facing possible economic meltdown and starvation, apparently arrived before dawn Monday on his first visit in four years to his closest ally, China.

All the world knows about this rare and potentially critical trip, however, is that the South Korean intelligence agency detected a “special train” at the Chinese border last night, that reporters camped out along the railroad line in China were removed by Chinese security, and that “a group of Asians” was seen entering a hotel in the Chinese city of Dalian on Monday morning, according to a South Korean TV station. Kyodo News published a photo of Kim Jong-il ducking into a 35-car motorcade in Dalian on Sunday.

The extraordinary secrecy that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has imposed on everything to do with his country often prompts the observation that the description “North Korea expert” is an oxymoron – a contradiction in terms.

The sometimes bizarre aspects of Mr. Kim’s behavior, though, such as his refusal to fly in airplanes and his penchant for luxuriously appointed trains, can obscure the grave state of his country.

Pressing agenda

If he is in fact in China, Kim is expected to ask his closest ally for help on a number of fronts to prop up his regime.

For a start, a bungled currency reform last year is thought to have made North Korea’s frightful food shortages even worse. Hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation in the mid-1990s, and the UN World Food Program says it will run out of aid next month. The North executed its former chief of economic planning in March as punishment for harming the country's currency.

Governments around the world, fed up with North Korea’s nuclear weapons tests, missile tests, and repeated refusals to abide by previous disarmament agreements, have simply lost their will to fund the WFP emergency food program.

At the same time, suspicions are centering on Pyongyang as South Korean investigators puzzle over an explosion in March on a South Korean naval vessel that killed 46 sailors. If Seoul concludes that a North Korean torpedo killed them, Kim’s regime will find itself suffering even more international opprobrium.

An awkward visit

China is in a bind; Beijing does not want to see its old ally collapse, which could spark a flood of refugees across the border. But Pyongyang has twice snubbed the Chinese government, ignoring its warnings not to hold nuclear tests.

If the Chinese are to go on helping Kim and his government, they will want something in return.

Look, perhaps, for an announcement that after a yearlong boycott, North Korea is prepared to rejoin the six party talks on nuclear disarmament that Beijing has chaired for the last several years.

Or don’t, perhaps, look for anything. Maybe the “Dear Leader” is not in China at all, and is simply having some fun with decoy trains and delegations at the expense of foreign intelligence services.

The last time Kim visited China, in January 2006, his trip was officially announced only after he returned home. So we’ll just have to wait and see.

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