BEIJING – Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was expected to meet top Beijing officials Tuesday, visiting his country's main backer amid growing tensions over his country's suspected role in the sinking of a South Korean navy ship.
No official announcements have been made about Kim's visit, his first journey abroad in years. North Korean media typically report on his journeys after he returns home, and China's Foreign Ministry has refused to comment when asked about Kim.
Kim was seen by reporters in the port city Dalian in northeast China on Tuesday getting into a car and then was driven away in a 10-vehicle motorcade. It was not known where he was going.
China's leadership has been trying — so far unsuccessfully — to persuade North Korea's absolute ruler to come back to the negotiating table in talks to end its nuclear weapons program. Also hanging over the trip was speculation Kim's impoverished communist regime may have torpedoed a South Korean warship in March.
In Seoul on Tuesday, President Lee Myung-bak ordered a thorough review of South Korea's military readiness, calling the sinking of a warship no "simple accident" as officials inched closer to blaming North Korea in the deadly incident.
Lee did not directly name wartime rival North Korea as a suspect in the March 26 disaster as he opened a historic meeting of top military commanders at the Defense Ministry. However, he made it clear for the first time that he considers the sinking of the Cheonan following an explosion in disputed waters near the Koreas' maritime border to be an incident linked to North Korea.
The president also called North Korea's military "the most belligerent forces" in the world. Forty-six sailors died in the incident.
Kim traveled to Dalian on Monday after a luxury 17-car train carrying him pulled into the Chinese border town of Dandong, according to South Korean and Japanese media reports.
After Kim left the five-star Furama Hotel on Tuesday, police briefly detained photographers and TV camera crews, including one from Associated Press Television News, at the scene and asked the camera crews and photographers to delete images and video.
Kim visited factories in an industrial zone, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Dalian, where Japanese and South Korean firms have operations, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said, citing an unnamed source.
It also reported that Kim was headed to Jinzhou, where he would catch his train for Beijing. Kim is known to shun air travel.
Seoul's mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper cited an unidentified diplomatic source in Beijing as saying Kim would meet top Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao, for talks in Beijing.
Kim's visit comes at an awkward time for Beijing. The Chinese leadership has been trying to get Kim to agree to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks stalled now for a year, and believed that it had won the North Korean dictator's assent last October.
Since then, however, prospects for negotiations have dimmed. Pyongyang has been unwilling to comply with requests from the U.S. to resume the talks, and tensions have risen between North Korea and South Korea, partly over the mysterious ship sinking in late March in which 46 sailors were killed.
Rumors of a Kim trip, the first since he traveled to China in 2006 and the only the fifth since he took over power from his father in 1994, have circulated for months.
China, which backed North Korea with troops during the 1950-53 Korean War, is North Korea's last major ally and biggest provider of aid, and is widely seen as the country with the most clout with Pyongyang.
The timing of the visit comes as a U.N. conference opened this week to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and explore ways to strengthen its controls on the spread of nuclear materials. China, a nuclear power, is a backer of the treaty, but is expected to come under pressure to get North Korea to comply.
North Korea quit the disarmament-for-aid talks a year ago, and then conducted a nuclear test that drew tightened U.N. sanctions. The regime's botched currency reform aimed at regaining control over the economy late last year is believed to have worsened its financial woes.
Kim is believed to be grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him as leader of the impoverished communist nation of 24 million.