BEIJING—Perhaps it's the distinctive bouffant hairdo. Or the way his entourage fills an entire luxury hotel. Or the bulletproof train with all the curtains drawn.
No matter how hard Kim Jong Il tries to go unnoticed, the reclusive North Korean leader just can't seem to keep his trip to China under wraps. The Chinese press has been muzzled, but reports keep leaking out in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea media. On Tuesday, witnesses said sedans with tinted windows whisked Kim from his arriving train in Beijing to the secluded state guesthouse.
During the past week, Kim has been spotted in the southern city of Guangzhou and in special economic zones near Hong Kong where China experimented with reforms in the 1980s.
He reportedly has toured one of China's most successful telecommunications firms, a laser developer, free-trade zones, a state-of-the-art container port and a high-tech agricultural zone.
The big question is why the 63-year-old North Korean is undertaking an inspection tour of China. Does he seriously want to learn about economic reform? Is he buttering up China—his nation's only important ally—for increasing trade with his nation? Or does he want to show the world that he has a powerful friend in Chinese President Hu Jintao?
Whatever the answer, Kim's visit seems to be a coup for China, drawing the North Korean out for a rare extended visit.
"China for a long time has been trying to get him to think seriously about reforms," said David Zweig, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Another expert said he thought that Kim's tour through southern China offered him a genuine chance to study how the once-closed communist nation has launched its economy into the stratosphere by opening to the outside world.
"Were (Kim's trip) purely for external consumption, there certainly would have been some photo ops," said Peter M. Beck, the Northeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organization based in Brussels, Belgium. "We have to assume that this was educational to learn how special economic zones function."
If Kim meets Hu in Beijing, he's likely to face pressure to return to the stalled talks among six nations that are designed to have Pyongyang dismantle a weapons program that it claims has produced a nuclear deterrent to U.S. attack. The talks, which China hosts, have hit a stalemate over North Korea's demands that Washington lift the economic sanctions it imposed last fall.
"It's fairly safe to assume that Hu Jintao will tell Kim that he's got to go back to the table," Beck said.
North Korea has acknowledged that it's developing plutonium-powered nuclear weapons, but has denied U.S. charges that it's also secretly developing warheads powered by highly enriched uranium. The United States insists that North Korea fully disarm and resume international inspections of its nuclear programs. American intelligence officials estimate that North Korea already has up to nine nuclear weapons.
The United States also accuses North Korea of selling weapons abroad and counterfeiting American hundred-dollar bills to raise cash for its beleaguered economy.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan didn't openly deny that Kim was in the country. He said Hu planned to meet later Tuesday with a foreign leader but wouldn't specify with whom.
In response to a separate query, Kong noted that trade between China and North Korea had soared 23.1 percent in the first 11 months of 2005, to $1.56 billion. Chinese exports to North Korea composed two-thirds of the trade, he said.
A Chinese expert on North Korea, Shi Yinhong of the People's University, said the sharp rise in China's commerce with Pyongyang put pressure on Kim to reciprocate by openly admiring the results of China's economic reform, which began in the late 1970s.
"Kim Jong Il feels an obligation to offer a warm response, to go see Chinese achievements and say something positive about the reforms," Shi said.
But that's no guarantee that Kim will speed limited economic reforms in his own country, which began in 2002 and have included dabbling with urban and rural markets.
"The very nature of sweeping reforms would be inherently destabilizing to the regime. So it's more likely they would be halting reforms," said Beck, who's based in Seoul, South Korea.
Of Kim's six foreign trips since he assumed power in 1994, four have been to China. During a trip in 2001, he toured the stock market and the industrial zone of Shanghai, China's financial hub. Months later, he took tiny economic-reform steps.
Kim, who travels by train because he hates to fly, also came to China in 2004. That trip was kept under wraps until he departed.
This time, blurry television images of Kim have slipped out. Japanese broadcasters have shown images of a man with Kim's distinctive puffy hairstyle on a cruise of Guangzhou's Pearl River and getting out of a limousine at the city's White Swan Hotel, which Chinese authorities ordered emptied of guests before the visit.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Kim Jong Il
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060117 NKOREA Kim bio
Need to map