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N. Korean leader 'heads to southern China'

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1 N. Korean leader 'heads to southern China' on Sat May 21, 2011 8:10 pm

SEOUL (AFP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il headed on Saturday to southern China on day two of a trip which experts said was aimed at showing he was still in charge of the impoverished and starving communist state.

Kim inspected a car factory in the northeastern city of Changchun before heading southwest, news reports said.

Previous trips by Kim Jong-Il to China have been shrouded in secrecy, with state-controlled media in both countries reporting them only after they end.

Kim's special train left Changchun toward Shenyang, sparking speculation that his summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao may take place there or in Beijing, Yonhap news agency and YTN TV said.

Kim and his entourage earlier toured a factory of FAW Group, China's second-largest automaker by sales, but would not be staying overnight at Changchun where he met with Hu in his last visit in August last year.

Experts said the visit, the third by Kim in 12 months, reflects the North's dire need for help from its main benefactor to ease economic difficulties and food shortages amid ongoing international sanctions over its nuclear ambitions.

They also say it shows he is firmly in charge despite health concerns. Kim, 69, suffered a stroke in August 2008 and has since been putting in place a succession plan involving his youngest son and heir apparent Kim Jong-Un.

News reports in Seoul said Kim was apparently not accompanied by Kim Jong-Un. A hotel list of Kim's 70-member entourage did not show the son's name.

Kim Jong-Un, believed aged 27, was made a four-star general last September and given major posts in the ruling communist party to confirm his status as leader-in-waiting.

Professor Kim Yong-Hyun of Dongguk University said the trip, along with Kim's schedule of inspection visits at home, corroborated the belief that the North Korean leader's health had improved.

Through this visit, he is showing off his health and tight grip on power," Kim told the Hankyoreh Daily.

Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies told the daily that Kim senior will take care of national security and diplomacy, while his son will continue accumulating experience, focusing on domestic affairs.

The communist regime in North Korea is desperate to improve living standards and revive the economy before the 100th anniversary next year of the birth of founding president Kim Il-Sung, the current leader's father.

UN agencies said six million people -- a quarter of the population -- need urgent aid in the North, where a famine in the 1990s killed hundreds of thousands.

The trips to China by the reclusive leader "underscores the North's desperate need" for aid from China, Professor Cho Young-Ki of Korea University told the Chosun daily.

In the first three months to March, North Korea's exports to China surged three times to $410 million, Chosun said.

The North's two-way trade with China rose 32 percent last year to $3.47 billion, after South Korea severed most trade ties in protest at border attacks blamed on its neighbour.

Samaritan's Purse, one of five US groups that visited North Korea in February, said a harsh winter had reduced crop yields by up to half and some people were eating grass, leaves and tree bark to survive.

The United States said Friday it would send a team to Pyongyang in the coming week to evaluate a request for food aid from the hungry state.

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