Beijing: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il headed for eastern China by train Sunday during a mystery-shrouded visit to his country`s most important ally and source of aid, South Korean news reports said.
Kim was travelling to Yangzhou, west of Shanghai, the Yonhap news agency reported, citing diplomatic sources. South Korean broadcaster YTN said he might be headed to Shanghai, which he has visited in the past to study China`s economic reforms.
Kim apparently entered China on Friday and visited an industrial city in the northeast on what is believed to be his third trip to the country in 13 months. Such visits are seen as a means to shore up support for his isolated government and faltering economy.
Details of the trip were not known and there was no confirmation from China`s government about whether he was visiting. Kim`s foreign trips are cloaked in secrecy and China has confirmed his official visits — most recently in May and August of last year — only after his departure.
Employees who answered the phone at the Yangzhou and Shanghai railway stations and the Yangzhou city hall said they had no information about a possible visit by Kim. They refused to give their names.
A visit to Yangzhou, a tourist spot on the Yangtze River, could have special symbolism for Kim. It would come 20 years after Chinese state media say his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, visited the city in 1991 and held talks there with China`s then-president, Jiang Zeming.
Earlier South Korean news reports said Kim was headed straight for Beijing to hold talks with Chinese leaders.
On Saturday, Kim visited the industrial center of Changchun, Yonhap said. He met there in August with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Kim is believed to fear flying and travels in armored trains within North Korea and on trips across Russia and into China.
Japanese public broadcaster NHK obtained a grainy video appearing to show Kim in the northeastern Chinese city of Mudanjiang on Friday. He was shown shaking hands and waving to Chinese officials before climbing into a limousine.
South Korean media had initially suggested Kim`s son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, was either making a trip to China alone or was accompanying his father.
The elder Kim, 69, appears to have recovered from a reported stroke in 2008 and has resumed steady visits to factories and farms around North Korea. But trips outside the country are rare.
North Korea struggles to feed its population and faces international pressure to end its nuclear weapons program.
China and North Korea want to resume six-nation talks on ending the North`s nuclear programs in return for economic aid and other concessions. Fellow participants South Korea and the United States say the North must first exhibit sincerity toward disarmament.
China`s official Global Times newspaper published foreign news reports Saturday about Kim`s visit but no official confirmation. It said in an editorial the world should be grateful that Beijing maintains open channels of communication with North Korea.
The US State Department said it had no information on North Korean officials visiting China. It said U.S. officials would visit the North from Tuesday to Saturday to evaluate the country`s food needs.
North Korea appealed for aid in January. A UN assessment completed in March said 6 million people — a quarter of the population — need emergency help after bad weather hit crops.