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August 25, 2010

North Korean Leader Reportedly in China

North Korea's leader appears to have begun a trip to China, at the same time that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is in Pyongyang to secure the release of an imprisoned American. And China's top envoy on Korean issues is in Seoul in a bid to restart talks on the North's nuclear programs.

South Korean government officials said Thursday North Korea's leader apparently headed by train for the Chinese border. Officials in Seoul spoke on the condition that they not be identified.

The visit would be Kim Jong Il's second to China this year. He rarely travels outside North Korea.

Some news reports say that Mr. Kim's son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, is traveling with him.

Baek Seung-joo is a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. He says the visit likely is tied to next month's meeting of the North Korean Workers' Party - the first in 40 years.

Baek says the senior Kim probably is informing the Chinese leadership of planned changes within the North Korean power structure.

Other North Korea analysts concur that the trip may be intended to clinch Beijing's support for a third generation of the Kim family leading the country. But there are doubts among some regional experts in Seoul that the Kims are actually visiting China.

Also on Thursday, North Korea's central news agency said the country is to receive "emergency relief materials" from China amid reports the impoverished country's food crisis will worsen this year.

The reports of Mr. Kim's visit to China come as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is in the North Korean capital. The U.S. State Department says he is on a private humanitarian mission to secure the release of an imprisoned American.

Aijalan Mahli Gomes was sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegally entering North Korea and fined the equivalent of 700,000 dollars. He has been held since January.

North Korean television showed Mr. Carter's arrival at the Pyongyang airport Wednesday.

The announcer says Mr. Carter was greeted by vice foreign minister Kim Gye Gwan and later had a "cordial talk" with Kim Yong Nam, the president of the country's Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly.

Also this week, China's top envoy on Korean issues, Wu Dawei, is in Seoul. The South Korean Foreign Ministry says he is here to discuss the resumption of stalled talks about North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

Baek at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses thinks the three visits going on this week are linked.  He calls the diplomacy significant and appears connected to efforts to resume the nuclear negotiations.

China is pushing to restart the six-nation nuclear talks. But three participants, South Korea, Japan and the United States, have expressed reservations in wake of the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March. An international investigation blamed the sinking of the Cheonan on a North Korean torpedo. Pyongyang denies any involvement.