North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-il is visiting powerful ally China with his son and heir apparent, South Korean government sources said, ahead of a meeting next month that may settle his succession.
The visit comes ahead of a rare meeting of the Workers' Party (WPK), which rubber stamps major policy decisions in the North. Analysts say the assembly could set in motion the succession of the leader's son, Kim Jong-un.
"Kim Jong-il is travelling through China by train, but we have no information as to whether his son is accompanying him," a presidential source told Reuters.
A South Korean foreign ministry source said there was evidence that both Kim and his son were in China.
Kim, his iron rule underpinned by a personality cult, rarely travels abroad. But this would be the second time since May that he has gone to China on which he depends to prop up his country's failing economy.
When he does travel, he always goes by private train and is thought to be terrified of flying.
There is widespread speculation that Kim is in poor health following a suspected stroke in 2008 and some analysts say he may be in a hurry to establish his son's succession to the family dynasty that has ruled North Korea since its founding after World War Two.
Daniel Pinkston, a specialist on Korean affairs in Seoul with the International Crisis Group, said a visit was most likely connected to next month's WPK meeting.
"There is so much circumstantial evidence pointing to the succession issue. And there are other signs that they are hurting for cash aid and assistance. The two things are not mutually exclusive.
"If the succession is being accelerated, then of course Kim has an incentive to address the economic problems and other issues which will be helpful for his son in the transition to taking power."
Cai Jian, an expert on Korea at Fudan University in Shanghai expressed a degree of scepticism over the reported trip.
"North Korea does not need China's blessing or approval for succession plans, but Kim may feel he should inform China of his plans.
"China has made it clear that it is very concerned about maintaining stability and close contacts with North Korea, and it would be concerned to know that any future leader also attaches much importance to relations with China. But this is not about seeking China's agreement, it's about informing China."
The reported visit was taking place a day after former US President Jimmy Carter flew into Pyongyang to win the release of an American jailed in the isolated country.
There has been heightened tensions on the peninsula after the March torpedoing of a South Korean warship, blamed by Seoul on the North. The sinking prompted expanded US sanctions against the North.
Pyongyang, which denies sinking the ship, itself has been pushing the international community to return to talks on ending its nuclear weapons programme in return for massive aid and an end to its international isolation.
China wants Seoul and Washington to put the sinking of the warship behind them, and to restart the stalled six-party talks. To that end, Beijing was sending its top nuclear envoy Wu Dawei to Seoul.
The South's foreign ministry spokesman, Kim Young-sun, told a news conference that North Korea must first take responsibility for the sinking and be willing to denuclearise before Seoul was willing to engage in six-party talks.Reuse content