North Korea's next leader makes secret trip to China

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The Independent Online

The ailing leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, reportedly dispatched his youngest son and heir apparent to Beijing last week for consultations with the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, and other top officials, who apparently urged the young man to bring a halt to all further nuclear tests in his country.

News of the mysterious diplomatic mission surfaced on the same day that the US President Barack Obama joined with his South Korea counterpart, Lee Myung-Bak, in firmly warning the Pyongyang regime against taking any further steps to threaten regional peace and stability.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman denied having any knowledge of the meeting between President Hu and Kim Jong-un, 26. However, China remains the closest thing to an ally that North Korea has in the world and reports of the visit come just days after it emerged that the North Korean has been anointed as his father's successor.

North Korea's isolation has deepened following the adoption last week of another UN Security Council resolution ramping up sanctions. The text was supported by China as well as Russia. Yesterday, Japan said that in response to the resolution it was halting all exports to North Korea. The UN action includes provisions for the inspections of all ships sailing to and from the country.

Western governments are already scrambling for intelligence on Kim Jong-un. According to Swiss reports, he studied at the International School of Berne until 1998, learning English, German and French. It has been reported that he also developed a taste for skiing. Whether he would be any more reformist than his father – who at 67 now appears gaunt after suffering an apparent stroke – is not known. After his talks in Washington with South Korea's President Lee, Mr Obama spoke in stern terms about North Korea and where it now finds itself three weeks after detonating an underground nuclear explosion. The presidents signed a joint document reiterating that the US continues to provide South Korea with a protective nuclear umbrella.

"There's been a pattern in the past where North Korea behaves in a belligerent fashion and if it waits long enough is then rewarded with foodstuffs and fuel and concessionary loans and a whole range of benefits," Mr Obama told reporters. "The message we're sending ... is we are going to break that pattern."

Mr Lee, standing next to the US President in the Rose Garden, also insisted that the UN steps should be taken seriously by the authorities in the North. "The North Koreans will come to understand that this is different, that they will not be able to repeat the past or their past tactics and strategies," Mr Lee said.

In recent weeks North Korea has ejected international nuclear inspectors, restarted operations at its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon, withdrawn indefinitely from the six-party talks that were aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programme and, in response to the new UN resolution, threatened unspecified nuclear retaliation.