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.
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.
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.
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.
But Kim Jong Il's main purpose of this visit is to seek much-needed economic assistance from North Korea's last and staunchest ally, China. The impoverished country is in dire need of food, oil, and goods to keep its economy going, and is said to have been in political unrest since the disastrous attempt at revaluing its currency earlier this year.
Intensified U.N. sanctions imposed after the country tested missiles and nuclear weapons in recent years have also put Kim's regime in a difficult spot. Talks to end its nuclear program have been deadlocked, further isolating North Korea from the international community.
"North Korea wants to get China's diplomatic help on the issue of non-proliferation so that it can avoid being totally isolated in the international community," said Professor Zhang Liangui, an expert on China-North Korea relations who teaches at the Central Party School in Beijing.
Foreign investment is also on Kim's agenda. "Shanghai and Shenzhen that Kim Jong Il visited previously are both too advanced into a capitalist system," said Professor Philo Kim at Seoul National University. "But Dalian model is pretty realistic enough to apply to their special economic zone, like Rajin-Sonbong," referring to a northeastern port area where borders meet with Russia and China. The area has been established in December 1991 as North Korea's first free trade zone but attempts to develop the area have failed so far.
ABC's Joohee Cho reported from Seoul and Chito Romana from Beijing. Wookyung Chloe Jung and Danny Kim contributed to this story.