The reported arrival on Saturday of a train from North Korea in a Chinese border city added to speculation that Kim Jong Il was readying a visit to the neighbouring country, though there was no confirmation the reclusive leader had departed.
A possible visit by the 68-year-old Kim would come as the United States and regional powers including China are pressing North Korea to rejoin stalled negotiations aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programmes.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that a special train arrived before dawn in the Chinese city of Dandong and quoted an anonymous South Korean government official as saying the train was either carrying Mr. Kim or was an advance train preceding a trip.
Later, the same news agency reported in a dispatch from China that the train was carrying cargo. Other South Korean media, including cable news channel YTN and the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, carried similar reports of a North Korean cargo train arriving in the city.
Adding to the confusion were reports by North Korea’s state news agency and radio saying Mr. Kim attended an art performance, leading South Korean media to speculate he had yet to depart even though the North Korean reports did not mention the time and location of his appearance.
The various reports come after South Korea’s presidential office said on Wednesday there was a high possibility a visit was in the works. The reclusive Mr. Kim rarely travels abroad and only under tight security. He last visited China in January 2006. Mr. Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008.
The National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main spy agency, said on Saturday it was looking into whether Mr. Kim could be on the move.
To ensure security, Mr. Kim’s train travels with two others, the first one running ahead of his to check the safety of railway lines while the second runs behind his and carries security agents, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported last year, citing an analysis by South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities.
Mr. Kim’s train is equipped with armour and has conference rooms, reception halls, bedrooms, wall—mounted TVs and modern communications equipment like satellite phones, enabling him to get briefed on major issues and issue orders while travelling, according to the newspaper.
Mr. Kim, who alternates between hard—line and concessionary approaches to the outside world, could give China a diplomatic gift by promising to return to the Beijing—hosted disarmament talks in exchange for Chinese aid to resolve its chronic food shortage and economic difficulties.
Speculation of a Kim trip in early April has been partially fuelled by diplomatic and legislative calendars in China and North Korea.
Chinese President Hu Jintao is scheduled to visit the United States for a nuclear security summit on April 12—13. North Korea’s rubber stamp parliament, meanwhile, is expected to convene on April 9.
As the North’s key ally and biggest aid provider, China is widely seen as the country with the most clout with Pyongyang. Its influence is seen as key to getting North Korea to return to the six—nation talks that involve the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan. North Korea quit the forum last year and conducted a second underground nuclear test, resulting in tighter U.N. sanctions.