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Mystery North Korean visitor in China veiled by security

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CHANGCHUN, China (Reuters) – A secretive convoy from North Korea visited the northeast Chinese city of Changchun on Saturday, before moving on in what may be ruler Kim Jong-il's latest trip to shore up ties with his isolated country's sole major supporter.

Neither Beijing nor Pyongyang has said whether Kim, and maybe his son and heir apparent Kim Jong-un, is visiting China. Both sides are habitually secretive about such trips.

But the tight security and unscheduled movements of a distinctive North Korean train echoed past journeys by the elder Kim, who visited China twice last year to woo his powerful neighbor.

On Saturday, the train rolled into Changchun, capital of Jilin province. A convoy of cars that included a large, black Mercedes Benz with darkened windows whisked at least some of the mystery guests into a heavily guarded hotel.

"I assume it's some leader but nobody tells us anything. Living round here you get used to stuff like this," said a resident strolling nearby. He gave only his surname, Wang.

Later the motorcade left for the train station, and the visitors continued their rail journey, possibly in the direction of Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province, along a train line that stretches south to the national capital, Beijing.

Japan's Kyodo news agency issued a photograph that appeared to show the 69-year-old Kim Jong-il, with his distinctive frizz of hair and olive-green clothing, leaving a hotel in Mudanjiang, where he apparently stopped on Friday before going to Changchun.

This latest secretive visit from North Korea comes while China's Premier Wen Jiabao visits Japan for a summit with the leaders of Japan and South Korea, both foes of Pyongyang.

North Korea rattled the region last year with its increasingly belligerent stance toward the far richer South, and has drawn closer to neighbor Beijing for economic and diplomatic support.


China has sought to steady ties with Seoul and Tokyo, but also sees North Korea as a strategic bulwark against the United States and its regional allies. In recent years, China has sought to shore up relations with the North with increased aid and trade and frequent visits there by leaders.

The arrival in China on Friday of a train from North Korea prompted South Korean officials and media to conclude it was carrying Kim Jong-un, anointed last year as heir apparent to his father, but speculation then shifted to it being the father.

A South Korean newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, reported that Kim Jong-un, in his late 20s, was not among the North Korean visitors, citing government sources.

In the past, such visits have also been shrouded in secrecy, and China or North Korea have acknowledged a visit only near or after its end.

Kim Jong-il travels by train due to his fear of flying, and visited China last May and August. Northeast China could play an important part in North Korea's economy, and Kim has travelled there before, including last year when Chinese President Hu prodded him to open up the North's economy.

Changchun city alone has an economy worth $52 billion in 2010, bigger than North Korea's national economy, worth about $40 billion in 2009, according to a U.S. government estimate that used purchasing power parity methods.

During Kim Jong-il's previous trip, he told Hu that Pyongyang remained committed to dismantling nuclear facilities in line with previous international agreements.

In November, however, the North showed a U.S. nuclear physicist what it said was a uranium enrichment program, which could open a second route to make a nuclear bomb along with its plutonium program.

Kim Jong-il is widely believed by South Korean officials and experts to have suffered a stroke in 2008.

But his health appears to have improved since the visits to China last year, prompting diplomats and analysts to re-evaluate their assessment of the pace of succession.

(Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan in CHANGCHUN, China; Hyunjoo Jin in SEOUL; Additional reporting and writing by Chris Buckley in BEIJING; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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