North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sent his youngest son and heir to the ruling dynasty on his first public visit to China media said, a trip seen as an attempt to raise his standing with the secretive state’s only powerful benefactor.
Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, arrived by train in Tumen, in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin, South Korean media reported. Yonhap news agency quoted a government official in Seoul as saying he was unlikely to go to Beijing.
Reclusive North Korea is preparing for a third generation of Kim family rule, with the inexperienced Kim poised to take over from his father as the autocratic state’s next leader, reports Reuters.
Analysts say the succession process, hastened last September due to Kim Jong-il’s poor health, has probably slowed down in recent months due to the 69-year-old leader’s apparent improving condition.
South Korea’s spy agency has been expecting the visit for months. Media reports said the trip would likely focus on developing economic ties between the neighbours and could involve visits to joint projects on their border.
Paik Hak-soon, director of the Centre for North Korean studies at Sejong Institute in South Korea, said the young Kim’s trip was politically and economically motivated.
“First it is meant to demonstrate and establish himself as the successor. Secondly, he needs to make achievements in the economic area because of the North’s economic difficulties,” he said.
The Chosun Ilbo website said Kim could stay on to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for two development projects on the North Korea-China border at the end of the month.
A construction project developing an island called Hwanggumpyong in the lower reaches of the Tumen River starts on May 28, and construction of roads connecting Hunchun in China and Rajin-Sonbong in North Korea on May 30, the paper said.
Chinese and South Korean government officials could not immediately confirm the visit.
North Korea has dramatically increased its economic cooperation with China over the past two years to circumvent international sanctions imposed for its nuclear and missile tests in 2009.
In 2010, trade between China and North Korea was worth $3.5 billion (2.1 billion pounds), up 29.6 percent from 2009, according to Chinese customs statistics. China’s imports from North Korea in 2010 grew by 50.6 percent to $1.2 billion, and its exports to North Korea grew 20.8 percent to $2.3 billion.
North Korea has been further squeezed by tougher sanctions by South Korea and the United States following two attacks on the peninsula last year which killed 50 South Koreans.
Zhang Liangui, an expert on North Korea at the Central Party School in Beijing which trains Chinese officials, said that if confirmed, Kim’s trip was meant to extract more aid and support from China.
But Zhang said Kim Jong-un would not be the one to hammer out specifics of any new agreements with China. “Kim Jong-un wouldn’t understand that kind of thing. He wouldn’t have deciding authority over that either.”
DIPLOMACY IN ACTION
The youngest of the leader’s three sons, little is known about Kim, not even his age. He was most likely born in 1984.
Educated in Switzerland, he is thought to speak English and German, and bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather, the North’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
Analysts say two attacks on the peninsula last year, one denied by North Korea, were aimed at winning the army’s support for a continuation of dynastic rule and underscored an intent to maintain the state’s military-first policy.
Experts say the young Kim will likely follow the same militaristic path, maintaining a strong grip over one of the world’s largest armies and pressing on with a nuclear weapons programme in the face of international outrage.
The Chosun Ilbo reported that Kim was accompanied by his uncle and minder, Jang Song-thaek, who was last year promoted to the powerful National Defence Commission.
Many analysts took Jang’s promotion to be an attempt to establish a mechanism for the eventual succession, with Jang as regent while his nephew establishes himself in power.