Secretive Kim Jong Il makes surprise visit to China's ecomonic hothouse

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Kim Jong Il, the supreme leader of the secretive Stalinist enclave of North Korea, spent the weekend visiting China's richest city, Shenzhen, a buzzing frontier town near Hong Kong known for its liberal economy and its wild nightlife.

He also took in a tour of hi-tech factories in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, a centre of the economic hothouse known as the Pearl River Delta. More than half the world's manufactured goods are made in China, and a big chunk are produced in this thriving region.

All week there had been speculation about whether he was making one of his rare trips abroad, with rumours his Elvis-style quiff had been spotted in Shanghai. As evidence mounted that he was in the southern city of Shenzhen, attentions turned to finding out exactly what he was doing on the visit, his first since 2004. Kim dislikes flying and prefers to take a specially built train given to his father, Kim Il Sung, by Stalin. Reputedly quite the bon viveur, defectors tell tales of carriages filled with mistresses and crates of his favourite Bordeaux wines.

Despite tales of Kim's love of the good life, his country is one of the poorest in the world and his visit to China could be a signal that he might relaunch economic reforms based on China's success in implementing economic policies.

For North Korea, China is an example of a communist country which has introduced change by adapting socialist principles to implement market-orientated reforms.

Supplies of grain and oil from Beijing, one of Pyongyang's few friends in the world, do much to keep the teetering regime from collapse. After Kim's visits to Beijing and Shanghai in 2000 and 2001, North Korea began to experiment with reforms allowing limited private markets and curtailed rationing.

North Korean government newspapers have run editorials saying a big task for 2006 would be to "intensively unfold projects for rebuilding and modernising the people's economy" - Cold War jargon for reform.

Shenzhen was the first of the Special Economic Zones to spearhead economic reform under the former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping. A town of 30,000 in 1980, it is now a boomtown with a population of eight million, and home to the world's biggest golf club, Mission Hills.

Kim is unlikely to go home without meeting Chinese leaders to discuss how to resume stalled six-party talks aimed at ending a nuclear stand-off on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea agreed in principle last year to dismantle its nuclear weapons in exchange for aid and security guarantees but talks have since stalled again.