North Korean leader Kim tours Chinese border cities on trip that sparked succession talk

CHANGCHUN, China (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il apparently toured several Chinese border cities Sunday while on a secretive trip reportedly aimed at drumming up support for a succession plan involving his youngest son.

Reporters have followed a motorcade — apparently used by the reclusive Kim — around several cities in northeast China. The 35-vehicle convoy accompanied by police cars with flashing lights was seen headed to the train station in Changchun on Saturday.

In a photograph carried by Japan's Kyodo News agency, a man in a khaki jumpsuit with thinning hair believed to be Kim is seen shaking hands at the train station with a man it identified as a senior Chinese official. The two men are standing on a red carpet and are surrounded by many officials.

Kim rarely leaves North Korea and when he does he travels by special train. South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Sunday that Kim was believed to have traveled to Yanbian, a Korean autonomous prefecture in the far northeastern Chinese province of Jilin bordering North Korea, after leaving Changchun.

Kim is believed to have toured the cities of Yanji, Tumen and Hunchun in Yanbian, Yonhap reported, citing an unidentified source in Beijing. It said Kim would likely return home later Sunday.

Kim's visit to the cities may be related to China's plans to develop its northeastern regions, Yonhap speculated. It said China wants to continue using North Korea's port of Rajin and hopes to obtain permission to use other ports as well.

North Korea does not announce Kim's trips until after he returns home, and China has refused to say if he is in the country, even though a Japanese television station had a grainy picture of him.

Kim was reportedly accompanied by his son, Kim Jong Un, believed to be in his 20s. Many North Korea watchers predict the son will be appointed to a key party position at a ruling Workers' Party meeting early next month — the first such gathering in decades.

To pull off the event with sufficient fanfare, North Korea will need Chinese aid, particularly following the devastating floods that battered the country's northwest this month, analysts said.

South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper and Yonhap both reported that Kim was believed to have met Chinese President Hu Jintao in Changchun on Friday. The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper said the two are believed to have discussed the North's succession, the resumption of six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program, and ways to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation.

Kim also badly needs Chinese aid because of flooding earlier this month that damaged or destroyed more than 7,000 homes, and inundated 17,800 acres (7,200 hectares) of farmland close to the border with China, the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported this week.

KCNA said China has already agreed to deliver some aid to help North Korea cope with the disaster but didn't give specifics.

The North faces chronic food shortages and has relied on outside aid to feed much of its 24 million people since a famine that is believed to have killed as many as 2 million people in the 1990s.

In an attempt to improve its meager economy, it has experimented with limited market reforms and sought foreign investment, mostly from China and South Korea. But tensions with the South have caused trade and joint economic projects with the South to wither and raised the importance of ties to Beijing.

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Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Scott McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.

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