June 16, 2009

Son of North Korea's Kim visits China as heir: media


TOKYO (Reuters) – The youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il secretly visited China last week and his hosts were told he had been appointed heir to the ruling family dynasty, Japan's Asahi newspaper reported on Tuesday.

The report, citing unidentified informed sources, said Kim Jong-un met Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders of the ruling Communist Party when he flew to Beijing around June 10.

Analysts have said North Korea's nuclear test on May 25 and other belligerent acts may be aimed at a domestic audience, with the elder Kim trying to bolster his position at home to secure the succession of his youngest son. The 67-year-old leader is believed to have suffered a stroke last year.

An aide to Jong-un told Chinese officials the younger Kim had been appointed heir and that he held an important post in the ruling Korean Workers' Party, the mass circulation Asahi said.

"If what was said in the paper is proven to be true, it would not be a stretch to say the decision to make him heir is official," said Ko Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul's Dongguk University.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said he had no knowledge of the reported visit. North Korean state media has never told the country's public that leader Kim has offspring, let alone report on the journey of a son to Pyongyang's key backer.

Jong-un is the Swiss-educated third son of Kim Jong-il and was born in 1983 or 1984. Earlier this month South Korean media, quoting informed sources, said Pyongyang had asked the country's main bodies and overseas missions to pledge loyalty to him, indicating he will take over from his father.

China is the closest thing North Korea has to an ally, and in theory Beijing wields more influence over Pyongyang than any other power, but experts say the relationship is brittle and China actually has limited room for maneuver.

Hu apparently asked North Korea not to go ahead with another nuclear test or test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Asahi reported. Jong-un was believed to have asked China for emergency energy and food aid, the newspaper said.


Beijing does not want its neighbor to build up a nuclear arsenal that could spark a regional arms race, but nor does it want to risk North Korea falling into chaos -- which could prompt a flood of refugees across their land border.

Reluctant to back sanctions, China agreed to a U.N. Security Council resolution last week that banned all weapons exports from the hermit state in response to the nuclear test, the country's second after one in 2006, but analysts say Beijing may take a soft approach to enforcing the resolution.

The resolution also authorized U.N. member states to inspect North Korean sea, air and land cargo, requiring them to seize and destroy shipped goods that violate the sanctions.

"The danger point is the ship inspections ... China is unlikely to participate in stopping ships on the sea, but on the roads they might become more rigorous about inspection," said Jin Canrong, a North Korea expert at Beijing's Renmin University.

North Korea held a large rally in Pyongyang on Monday to denounce the U.N. sanctions, its official KCNA news agency said.

"In case the enemies foolishly attempt to blockade the DPRK (North Korea), it will respond with resolute and deadly blows," KCNA quoted a senior communist official as saying at the rally.

North Korea has raised regional tensions in recent months by also test-firing missiles, threatening attacks and restarting a plant to produce arms grade plutonium.

The North Korean crisis will dominate talks between South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday.

North Korea had also finished preparatory work at a missile launch pad at Tongchang-ri in the country's north, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo quoted a Seoul government source as saying. No missile had been set on the pad yet, the source said.

Pyongyang has threatened another intercontinental ballistic missile launch after the U.N. Security Council punished it for firing a long-range rocket over Japan in April.

It takes North Korea several days to prepare long-range rockets for launch once they are on the pad. The rocket, known as the Taepodong-2, is designed to fly as far as U.S. territory.

Japan said it would impose fresh sanctions on North Korea in response to the nuclear test, including what media said would be a ban on all exports. The impact will be limited, with Japan's exports to the North already small and imports banned as part of previous sanctions.

(Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa in Tokyo, Jon Herskovitz, Jack Kim and Christine Kim in Seoul, Emma Graham-Harrison and Lucy Hornby in Beijing, Editing by Dean Yates)

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