Kim Watch

For a second time in four months, the South Korean press stampedes to cover the Dear Leader's unexpected visit to China.

GETTY IMAGES/ Undated photo released by North Korea's Central News Agency
GETTY IMAGES/ Undated photo released by North Korea's Central News Agency

On Thursday, two trains quietly arrived at the Jilin railway station in China’s northeastern province, bordering North Korea. The first one carried North Korean security guards, who disembarked and checked the safety of the area, including looking for hidden explosives on the railway tracks. Two minutes later, a second train, with opaque windows, arrived. This one, at least according to the South Korean media, carried a special guest: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

The Dear Leader stepped off the special bullet-proof train, which is often described in press reports as a "five-star hotel that runs on the railways" — complete with satellite communication equipment, plus a separate bedroom and office. It runs at 150 to 180 kilometers per hour and yet allegedly tracks so smoothly that even cups don’t shake.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is believed to be making a secretive visit to China for meetings related to the leader’s heir and the nuclear deal. It is not clear whether the heir, Kim’s youngest son, is along for the ride.

Both Beijing and Pyongyang have so far kept mum on the visit. But multiple diplomatic sources in China said that they believe Kim is in the country. International media organizations with bureaus in Beijing swiftly dispatched their reporters to the border city.

Kim’s China trip came as a surprise. Indeed, he had been thought to be meeting with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who arrived in North Korea just a day earlier to seek the release of a U.S. citizen held there since January.

Instead, according to South Korean reports, drawing on local eyewitness accounts, Kim paid a visit to a middle school in Jilin, the city that his father, Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea in 1945, attended for two years. Reportedly riding in an old Mercedes-Benz, Kim also visited a memorial park where Koreans and Chinese together fought against the Japanese decades ago.

The motives for his visit remain murky. Kim last visited China in May and met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Making another visit, only three months later, raises eyebrows. "Kim Jong Il just visited China. Why he has to come back again?" Lu Chao, a Chinese expert on North Korea at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, near the North Korean border, told me. Other press reports have suggested that the surprise visit to China is to seek greater economic aid, but Lu doesn’t buy it. "For that kind of matter, he doesn’t have to come himself."

South Korea’s official Yonhap news agency cited an unnamed government official saying the aged dictator is seeking China’s endorsement for his heir. But Chung Se-hyun, South Korea’s former unification minister, pooh-poohed that notion, which he believes to be too simplistic. "That’s nonsense. Although North Korea is economically dependent on China, the nature of their relationship is not like that. North Korea can just notify China about [a change in leadership]," Chung told me.

Absent definitive explanations, the South Korean press is having a field day.

Journalists who descended upon the remote border city of Jilin have yet to film Kim, as they managed to do in May, when he was spotted at a hotel in the Chinese coastal city of Dalian. Yet South Korean reporters have managed to gather accounts of local people seeing him. According to these accounts, Kim stayed Thursday night at the Wusong Hotel, a deluxe hotel 10 kilometers northeast from the downtown Jilin city near the scenic Songhua River. Likely the hotel was not chosen for its scenery, but for its isolated location. Some journalists attempted to enter the hotel, but they were turned away by security guards.

And of course none of this sheds any light on why the aged leader Kim Jong Il, 68, who remains in frail health since recovering from a stroke that paralyzed half of his body and who is reportedly on dialysis three times a week, made the arduous journey once again to China.

But expect more feverish coverage in the days to come, with every available detail of Kim’s visit reported with great fanfare. In this sense, with few substantive facts to report, coverage of the Dear Leader’s visit resembles more that of a celluloid celebrity than a politician.

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