(ATTN: UPDATES with Chinese nuclear envoy meeting with S. Korean counterpart in paras 22-23)
By Chang Jae-soon and Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, Aug. 26 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is believed to be visiting China, an official said Thursday, a surprise trip that came as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was in Pyongyang for a widely speculated meeting with the reclusive leader.
Analysts said the trip could be related to Kim's plan to hand control of the communist regime over to his youngest son, Jong-un, in what would be the second hereditary transfer of power in communism. The son could be traveling with Kim Jong-il, they said.
Kim's special train crossed into China around midnight Wednesday toward the northeastern Chinese border city of Jian, an official at South Korea's presidential office said on condition of anonymity. South Korea assumes Kim was aboard the train, the official said.
"(We) detected indications a few days ago," the official told reporters.
So far, Kim has not been seen in China. Neither Beijing nor Pyongyang confirmed Kim's apparent trip, though it has been a standard practice for both governments to confirm such a trip only after he returns home, apparently due to security concerns.
But sources in China said that Kim arrived in Jilin Thursday afternoon and paid a visit to a middle school that his father and national founder Kim Il-sung attended for two years as well as a memorial park symbolic of anti-Japanese movements.
If the trip is confirmed, it would be Kim's second visit to China in about three months, an unusual move for the isolated leader who rarely travels abroad. Kim last visited China in May this year and held talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
"It is unprecedented that (Kim) visited China twice in a same year and in a short period of time like this," the official said, adding that Seoul is scrutinizing relevant intelligence to determine his exact destination and the purpose of his visit.
Kim may not visit Beijing this time, given that he chose an extraordinary route, the official said. Kim traditionally visited Beijing by train through Dandong, a Chinese border city. The change in routes may be due to floods in Sinuiju, a North Korean border town, a another source said on condition of anonymity.
Kim's apparent trip came as a total surprise because he had been widely expected to meet with ex-U.S. President Carter. Carter arrived in Pyongyang Wednesday to win the release of an American citizen detained in the North since January for illegal entry.
On Wednesday evening, Carter held talks and had dinner with North Korea's No. 2 leader, Kim Yong-nam. There has been no word from Pyongyang's state media that Carter has met with Kim Jong-il, though it is still possible that the two could have met before Kim departed for China.
Carter was expected to head home from North Korea Thursday, together with the detained American, Aijalon Mahli Gomes. But the North's official media remained silent about what was going on with the ex-president on Thursday, raising speculation that his stay might be extended.
"I can't believe this," Paik Hak-soon, a senior analyst at the think tank Sejong Institute, said of Kim's apparent Chinese trip at a time when Carter was in Pyongyang. "I can't think of anything more urgent for Kim than meeting with Carter."
Other analysts raised various speculations, including Kim's possible health problems.
But the dominant views were that Kim visited China to seek Beijing's blessing for his plan to hand power over to his youngest son, Jong-un, before the ruling Workers' Party convenes a rare and crucial leadership meeting early next month.
On Thursday, Pyongyang's state media reported that the country has started holding lower-level meetings of party delegations in the run-up to next month's conference.
"The meetings were unanimous in saying that the WPK conference ... will be a significant conference which will be a landmark of an epochal turn in strengthening the party and a great jubilee of great significance in ushering in a new surge in the revolution and construction," the KCNA said.
Officials and analysts also speculated that the heir-apparent could be traveling with his father.
"The succession issue probably wasn't clearly set out in May" when Kim Jong-il visited China for a meeting with President Hu Jintao, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies. "This time, it appears that China has made up its mind about Kim's youngest son."
Kim Sung-joo, a political science professor at Seoul's Sungkyunkwan University, also said, "China now seems ready to embrace Kim Jong-un."
Both analysts said Pyongyang could have offered a key step forward in its denuclearization efforts.
China's chief nuclear negotiator, Wu Dawei, visited Pyongyang last week for talks on resuming six-party talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programs. Wu arrived in Seoul Thursday and met with his South Korean counterpart, Wi Sung-lac.
"During my visit here, I will exchange opinions with my South Korean counterparts on the current affairs on the Korean Peninsula and the six-party talks," the Chinese envoy said at the start of the meeting. Details of their closed-door discussions were not immediately available.
The nuclear standoff has been overshadowed by the North's deadly sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March. But in recent months, North Korea has sought to revive the process, expressing its willingness to come back to the negotiating table at which the regime vowed last year never to return.
South Korea has rejected the North's overtures as a ploy to dodge its responsibility for the ship sinking that killed 46 sailors. Seoul has demanded the North show a "responsible attitude" over the disaster and prove through action that it is serious about abandoning its nuclear programs.
The nuclear talks, which involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S., have been stalled since the last session in December 2008 due to a North Korean boycott.
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