North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, reportedly arrived today in an industrial city in northeastern China on the second day of a mysterious trip to his country's most important ally.
South Korea's Yonhap News agency said Kim arrived in Changchun by train early in the day and was shuttled by motorcade to the same state guesthouse where he had met with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a visit to the city in August.
A motorcade later left the guesthouse, known as the Nanhu Hotel, around 2pm and headed toward the city's train station, but reporters were being barred from shooting pictures in the vicinity.
Kim hasn't made any public appearances during his reported visit, although Japanese public broadcaster NHK obtained footage appearing to show Kim leaving his hotel in the northeastern Chinese city of Mudanjiang last night before departing for Changchun.
As always with Kim's overseas visits, his activities are shrouded in secrecy, and it wasn't known who he was meeting or the makeup of his entourage. South Korean media had initially speculated that Kim's son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, was either making a trip to China solo or accompanying his father.
The elder Kim, 69, who himself inherited power from his father, reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008. He appears to have recovered and has resumed his steady round of visits to factories and farms around North Korea.
The trip would be Kim's third in just over a year to his country's main diplomatic supporter and chief source of food and fuel assistance, and comes as North Korea struggles to feed its population and faces increasing pressure from the international community to end its nuclear weapons program. Kim's visits to China are widely seen as a strategy to shore up support for his isolated hardline communist regime and procure additional help for the moribund economy.
China and Pyongyang are also seeking a restart of six-nation talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programs in return for economic aid and other incentives. Fellow participants South Korea and the US say the North must first exhibit sincerity toward its nuclear disarmament before the talks can resume.
North Korean state media did not mention any state visit to China, and China's government and state media stayed mum. In the past, China has confirmed such visits only after they're finished. Kim Jong Il visited China in May and August of last year.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said he had no information on any North Korean officials visiting China, but said US officials would be visiting the North from Tuesday to Saturday to meet with their counterparts in Pyongyang and evaluate the country's food needs.
The delegation including food security experts, was being led by Robert King, the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, and Agency for International Development Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance Jon Brause.
North Korea appealed for aid in January. A UN assessment completed in March said a quarter of the population need emergency help after bad weather hit crops.
The US, like other international donors, distrusts the secretive North Korean government, which has pursued illicit nuclear weapons and missile programs despite its chronic food shortages.