"North Korea has been signaling a power transition, and China has been signaling that they are fine with that,” says John Delury, who teaches International Relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. “This trip takes things to the next level."
A spokesman for the Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, responsible for relations with Pyongyang, said he knew nothing about the reported visit. In the past, trips by North Korean leaders to China have been kept secret until they were over.
North Korea depends heavily on its only ally, China, not only for diplomatic support but also for economic aid, points out Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert at the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School in Beijing. “They need grain," he says. “If Kim Jong-un is here he is probably seeking more aid and financing.”
Some South Korean reports Friday suggested that it was Kim Jong-il who was in China and not his son. But the Chosun Ilbo, a Seoul daily, reported on its website that the younger Kim might attend groundbreaking ceremonies for two joint development projects along the Chinese-South Korean border.
Analysts are looking to the reported visit for clues about any areas of responsibility that the leader-in-waiting of the reclusive state might have been given since he was suddenly made a four star general last year, and given a prominent political post.
But “the power is still in his father’s hands,” says Professor Zhang, despite reports last year of Kim Jong-il’s failing health. “Kim Jong-un needs to come here to practice his political skills and get some experience,” Zhang adds.
The visit would also have historical echoes. In 1983, Kim Jong-il made an introductory trip to China when he was preparing to take over from his own father, North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung.
China has been careful to keep political and military channels to Pyongyang open in recent years despite North Korea’s disruptive behavior that has stymied Beijing’s efforts to steer diplomatic talks aimed at ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang has tested long-range missiles and two nuclear devices in defiance of the United Nations. North Korean military forces shelled a South Korean island last December, killing four people, and a North Korean torpedo is widely believed to have been responsible for last year's sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, in which 36 sailors died.
“China still believes that only engagement will slowly, over the long term, change North Korea,” says Professor Delury.
Beijing has avoided tying itself too tightly to its neighbor, however, adds Zhang. “North Korea would like to form a bloc with China, similar to the Cold War blocs,” he says. “But very few people in China want that, because it is not in our interests.”
Beijing has been active in recent months trying to resuscitate the Six Party talks that it chairs, aimed at persuading North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
Although China has persuaded Pyongyang to return to the talks, which have been stalled since 2008, Washington and Seoul are dubious of the value of further meetings in the absence of any assurances that North Korea will abide by previous agreements.