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Kim Jong-il is reportedly making an unexpected visit to China in a bid to shore up support for the succession of his son, Kim Jong-un. The trip has left former US President Jimmy Carter waiting hat-in-hand in Pyongyang, after he arrived Wednesday to seek the release of an American being held in North Korea.
The apparent snub to Mr. Carter may indicate that Mr. Kim feels there is little to be gained from the meeting, reports The Korean Herald. “I think Kim concluded that his meeting with Carter at this point will not help greatly in improving ties with Washington in light of its current North Korea policy,” Chung Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute, a think tank dedicated to Korean security and reunification, told the Herald.
Many experts believe the visit is tied to the aging Kim's efforts to ensure that his son Jong-un, who is rumored to be traveling with him, is his successor. Some reports speculate that Kim may be offering to return to stalled six-party nuclear talks in exchange for China's support of Jong-un.
“I expect that China will guarantee its support for the power handoff in return for the North agreeing to return to denuclearization talks, on genuine terms, and refrain from provocative behavior," Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Korea University, told The Korea Times.
Kim's special train crossed into China around midnight Wednesday toward the northeastern Chinese border city of Jian, an official at South Korea's presidential office said on condition of anonymity. South Korea assumes Kim was aboard the train, the official said.
"[We] detected indications a few days ago," the official told reporters.
Kim last visited China in May. If his current visit is confirmed, it would be mark the first time he visitied China twice in the same year, The Korea Times reports. Neither Beijing nor Pyongyang would confirm Kim's visit, though both have a policy of not reporting such visits until after Kim's return to North Korea.
The Associated Press quotes two Chinese workers who confirmed seeing Kim:
"He definitely came over. But I'm not sure if his son was with him or what time he came," said a physical education teacher who would give only his surname Zhao.
Another teacher said Kim visited the school in the morning for about 20 minutes. He refused to give his name.
Hinting at the topic of Kim's visit to China, the two leading newspapers of the Chinese Communist Party ran an editorial Thursday accusing the US and South Korea of attempting to derail North Korean succession, reports The DailyNK. The editorial claimed that the joint US-South Korean naval exercises held in July and mid-August were meant to "create turmoil in North Korea in the face of a pending political power transition."
The timing of Kim's trip to China was surprising as Kim left on the same day that Mr. Carter flew to Pyongyang to seek the release of US citizen Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was arrested in North Korea after crossing from the Chinese border in January.
The Christian Science Monitor noted that Carter was officially welcomed to Pyongyang by North Korea’s nuclear envoy Kim Kye-gwan, which suggests North Korea may be trying to emphasize the nuclear talks issue instead of the tensions over the sinking of the South Korean cruiser Cheonan in March. On Wednesday evening, Carter dined with North Korea's No. 2 leader, Kim Yong-nam, reports Yonhap.
But, The Korea Times writes, Kim's getaway to China guarantees that "Carter’s visit won’t be dealt with as much gravity and attention as perhaps he himself or the US would have hoped."
The Times reports that it appears Kim and Carter did not meet before Kim's departure, as Carter has extended his stay in Pyongyang. Instead of the planned meeting on Thursday, any meeting between Carter and Kim would likely have to occur on Friday at the earliest.