Kim Jong Il Heads to Beijing on Unusually Public Trip for North Korean Leader

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is expected to arrive in Beijing after spending two days touring the northeast Chinese port city of Dalian. On his rare trip outside North Korea, Kim surprised the international media, normally accustomed to state secrecy, by making his visit very public.

His entourage of up to 50 cars, buses, police vehicles, and an ambulance moved in and out of Dalian city for two days, visiting places like the Dalian Development Free Trade Zone where thousands of American, Japanese, and South Korean companies own factories. He is also reported to have taken a drive along the beach after dinner Monday night.

"He is making a statement to the international world that he is still healthy and in control," said Koh Yu-Hwan, professor of North Korean Studies at Dongkuk University in Seoul.

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Kim's appearance in Dalian was televised internationally and was even reported in China by some state-run newspapers like the China Daily and the Global Times, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry dodged questions from reporters asking to confirm Kim's visit. "As for the visit in which you are all interested in, I don't have any information to offer you," said spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

Analysts in Seoul point out that for security reasons Kim's armored train had been traveling at odd hours in the middle of the night during his four previous visits to China between 2000 and 2006. But on Monday, his 17-car armored train crossed the border into China at 5:20 a.m., local time, conveniently spotted after sunrise by Japanese TV cameras that have been hovering around for days after rampant speculation that Kim's visit to Beijing was imminent.

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His glitzy arrival was shot on camera with Kim wearing his trademark Ray-Ban-style black sunglasses and khaki army suit. He appeared frail, with thinning hair and a limp, apparently an effect of a stroke he suffered in 2008.

The international community did not expect him to detour to Dalian for two days on his way to Beijing. When the train stopped in Dandong, three hours away, Kim and his high-level party officials boarded a convoy of 15 limousines with Kim riding in a Maybach, Mercedes-Benz's $400,000 premium brand car. In Dalian, his motorcade pulled up at the five-star Furama Hotel.

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Traveling in Style

The North Koreans reserved the entire new wing of the hotel, according to South Korean media. But the selection of the Furama Hotel instead of a state VIP guesthouse surprised North Korea watchers.

During his last visit to Shanghai in 2006, the security-conscious Kim had used an underground parking lot to come and go unannounced. But in the past two days, he went in and out of the Furama Hotel several times using the main lobby.

"He's changing tactics from passive to proactive. He knows the world is watching and he's got a lot of questions facing him from the international community," said Koh.

International tensions have risen over whether Kim was behind the sinking in March of a South Korean Navy warship, the Cheonan, near the western sea border between the two Koreas. South Korean government has said the 1,200-ton warship was split in half by a torpedo, raising suspicions that it was a North Korean attack. Forty-six South Korean sailors died. An investigation is ongoing, with a team of international scientists and military specialists analyzing the wreck.

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