Beijing: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il`s secrecy-shrouded visit to China is aimed at securing economic support for his wrecked economy in exchange for a commitment to return to denuclearization talks, experts and media said Wednesday.
Chinese officials have refused to confirm Kim`s presence in the country, though he has been seen several tims since arriving aboard his armored train on Monday.
China, which sent troops to save the North Korean regime during the 1950-53 Korean War, is widely seen as the country with the most clout with Pyongyang. Kim, who is known to shun air travel, has visited five times since succeeding his father as ruler in 1994, most recently in 2006.
Japanese and South Korean media, which have been closely tracking Kim, reported Wednesday that a train carrying Kim had arrived in the booming eastern port city of Tianjin. His secretive trek by rail and motorcade is expected to eventually bring him to Beijing for talks with state and Communist Party leaders, including President Hu Jintao.
Those discussions are expected to center on further financial help from China, already impoverished North Korea`s biggest source of food and fuel aid and main bulwark against tougher sanctions against Kim`s isolated, hard-line communist regime.
Chinese investment, especially in North Korean natural resources, has also been growing, although widespread economic chaos — most recently a botched currency reform effort — limits such opportunities.
Fearing the regime`s implosion and mass unrest on its border, China is expected to accede to new aid requests, said Cai Jian, deputy director of the Center for Korean Studies at Shanghai`s Fudan University. The sides may also start implementing a series of economic agreements signed during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao`s trip to Pyongyang last year, Cai said.
While Beijing won`t link the issues explicitly, it will be expecting Kim to offer some new willingness to rejoin long-stalled six-nation talks sponsored by China under which Pyongyang agreed to dismantle its nuclear programs in return for aid.
"They want to break the deadlock so that North Korea could get back to the framework of the six-party talks," Cai said.
An announcement during Kim`s visit could bring a new round of six-nation talks by June, following bilateral contacts between North Korea and the U.S., said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
"Hu Jintao will promise an active cooperation in Chinese economic aid and investment to North Korea, while Kim will respond by announcing his country`s return to the six-party talks and his commitment to denuclearization," Yang said.
North Korea quit the talks a year ago, and then conducted a nuclear test that drew tightened U.N. sanctions. Kim made a vague commitment to return to talks during Wen`s visit, but has taken no concrete steps amid what experts see as moves by the ailing Kim to groom his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him as leader of the nation of 24 million.
The talks participants also include South Korea, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.
A Chinese official underscored Beijing`s hopes for a new round of negotiations in remarks Tuesday at a U.N. conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and explore ways to strengthen its controls on the spread of nuclear materials.
"China has been committed to promoting diplomatic solutions of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue and the Iranian nuclear issue," said Li Baodong, China`s main delegate to the monthlong conference.
Kim`s trip, expected for months, also comes amid increasing speculation in South Korea that his hard-line communist regime may have torpedoed a South Korean warship in disputed waters near their maritime border in March, killing 46 sailors.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak stopped just short on Tuesday of blaming the North, a step that could prompt heightened tensions along their border and attempts to punish the North with sanctions.
South Korean officials have called on China to play a "responsible role" amid the tensions, but the sensitive timing of Kim`s visit and lack of advance notice from Beijing has drawn criticism from some in Seoul.
"China may have had no choice but to maintain these abnormal ties with North Korea for historical and geopolitical reasons," the mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial Wednesday.
"But if it continues to be seen as being on North Korea`s side, it could face setbacks in its goal to become a world leader," the paper said.