Did North Korea's Kim Jong-il take heir-apparent son on surprise China visit?

North Korea's Kim Jong-il began a surprise visit to China Thursday, while former President Carter visited North Korea. The trip raises speculation that the 'Dear Leader' is grooming the son he hopes will succeed him.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A South Korean man watches a TV at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea reporting on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Aug. 26. Kim Jong-il began a surprise visit to China Thursday, in what would be his second visit to the country this year.
Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters
South Koreans watch a television screen with news showing a picture of Kim Jong-Un, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's son, at the Seoul railway station Aug. 26.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il began a surprise visit to China Thursday, reportedly accompanied by the son he hopes will succeed him.

Kim Jong-il was seen by teachers at the school in Northeastern China that his father attended 70 years ago. The Chinese government has not confirmed the visit, which would be the reclusive North Korean strongman’s second trip here in less than four months.

South Korean government officials said they had indications that Kim Jong-Un, the North Korean leader’s third son and reported heir apparent, was traveling with his father. Pyongyang announced in June that the ruling Workers Party would stage a rare meeting – the first of its kind in 40 years – next month to make leadership changes.

Those changes could pave the way for Kim Jong-Un’s elevation, experts here say.

“Kim Jong-il has come to persuade the Chinese to support his son,” says Cai Jian, a North Korea expert at Fudan university in Shanghai. “He has come to explain why he wants his son to succeed him and to reassure Chinese leaders that there will be no big policy changes.”

A key ally

Beijing is North Korea’s only ally, and the impoverished hermit state depends heavily on its powerful neighbor for fuel and food as well as for international political support.

Chinese leaders are thought to be uneasy about the prospect of a family handover of power in Pyongyang, reminiscent of China’s own imperial tradition. “Kim’s family has already arranged one succession. It is not proper for a third generation to continue this,” says Proffessor Cai.

A family affair

Kim Jong-il was publicly anointed by his father, Kim Il-Sung in 1974. He took power on his father’s death 20 years later, having held a succession of top government posts, though he did not become president. Kim Il-Sung remains his country’s “Eternal President.”

By contrast, Kim Jong-Un is not seen in public, nor mentioned in the North Korean media, nor does he appear to hold any important government job. He is thought to have been educated in Switzerland and to be 26 years old, but no photographs of him have surfaced since he was 11.

Limits of China's influence

Beijing would prefer a collective leadership to take over from Kim Jong-il, whose health is uncertain, according to Cai. The young man’s “lack of experience and ability may mean he is unable to control the country and that he would become a figurehead,” Cai suggests.

If Kim Jong-il has made up his mind, however, “China will not push hard,” Cai adds. “China has less influence over North Korea than many outsiders think, and Beijing is not going to risk its relations over this issue.”

The visit came as a surprise in particular because former US President Jimmy Carter is in North Korea and many had speculated he would meet with Kim.

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