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(LEAD) Seoul's spy chief says N.K. leader may visit China around April 25

All Headlines 19:17 April 06, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES with N. Korea's involvement in ship sinking in last six paras; CHANGES headline)

SEOUL, April 6 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il could make a long-anticipated trip to China late this month, considering the schedule of China's president and a key event in Pyongyang set for next week, Seoul's spy chief was quoted as saying Tuesday.

Won Se-hoon, head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), was quoted as telling the parliament's intelligence committee that Kim could travel to China around April 25, considering his likely attendance in his late father's birthday ceremony on April 15 and the overseas travel schedule of Chinese President Hu Jintao, Chung Chin-sup of the Grand National Party, who was present at the meeting, said.

Last week, South Korea's presidential office said Kim appeared to be ready to make the trip in the near future. Some had expected him to travel last weekend, but it did not happen.

Kim's Chinese trip draws wide media attention because he rarely travels abroad, and an upcoming trip, if any, is expected to lead to the North's return to stalled international talks on ending its nuclear programs.

China is the host of the talks also involving South Korea, the United States, Japan and Russia.

Regarding the mounting speculation about North Korea's possible involvement in last month's sinking of a South Korean Navy warship, Won told the committee that it is difficult to conclude that the North was involved in the naval disaster, according to Rep. Chung Chin-sup, a ruling party member of the committee.

The Cheonan, a 1,200-ton navy corvette, broke in two and sank in the Yellow Sea after an unexplained late night explosion on March 26. Fifty-eight of the 104 crew members were rescued from the vessel as it sank, but the others went missing. One of the sailors was found dead last Saturday in the stern of the sunken ship, leaving 45 still missing.

The cause of the disaster, one of the worst in the country's history, has yet to be confirmed, feeding speculation running rampant because the vessel went down near the tense maritime border with North Korea.

"There have been no particular movements in North Korea before and after the sinking of the Cheonan. Without any physical evidence, we can't conclusively say that the North was involved," Won was quoted by another committee member as saying.

"Even if the North was involved, such an attack could not have been carried out without the approval of Chairman of National Defense Commission Kim Jong-il."

North Korea, still technically at war with Seoul as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, does not recognize the western sea border that was drawn by the United Nations at the end of the war, claiming that it should be redrawn further south.

odissy@yna.co.kr
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