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North Korea's leader reportedly visits China after talks hit impasse

BEIJING—North Korea's reclusive leader apparently arrived in China on Tuesday for a secret visit, flinching from recent U.S. financial sanctions that have bitten into his regime.

South Korea's state-run Yonhap news agency, citing intelligence and diplomatic sources in China, said Kim Jong Il's armored train crossed the border Tuesday and would arrive in Shanghai early Wednesday. China declined to confirm that the North Korean strongman was in the country, but it hinted that the news reports may be true.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said he wasn't authorized to give any "specific information," but added, "China and North Korea are friendly neighbors and maintain the mechanism of exchanges of high-level visits."

China remains North Korea's only ally, and it hosts talks among six nations seeking to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The talks have hit an impasse.

When Kim last visited China, in April 2004, no official confirmation of the visit was released until Kim, who is afraid of flying, had boarded his bulletproof train to return to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. State-run media in China made no mention of the reported visit, although Hong Kong's Phoenix Television and news Web sites there offered extensive coverage.

Kim's purported visit comes amid North Korean fury at punitive U.S. sanctions against a Macau-based bank accused of helping Pyongyang launder counterfeit U.S. hundred-dollar bills and against eight North Korean companies allegedly involved in weapons proliferation.

North Korea said Monday it wouldn't return to the nuclear talks, which recessed in early November, until Washington lifts the financial sanctions.

It acknowledged that the sanctions were crimping its trade abroad. An unnamed North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman told North Korea's government-run KCNA news agency that the U.S. sanctions were designed "to destroy" North Korea "by stopping its blood from running."

On Monday, Pyongyang belittled as "utterly brigandish logic" the U.S. position that the financial sanctions have no relationship to the nuclear talks.

The Treasury Department told U.S. financial institutions in September to cut all ties with a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, which it said had helped Pyongyang distribute counterfeit U.S. currency. A month later, the Bush administration blacklisted eight North Korean companies allegedly involved in the spread of weapons.

Chinese President Hu Jintao visited North Korea in October and is eager to revive the nuclear talks before he makes a high-profile visit to Washington, perhaps in February.

An expert on North Korea at Beijing University, Zhu Feng, said he believes the U.S. financial sanctions have "worsened North Korea's economic situation."

But Zhu said he didn't believe any visit by Kim to China would lead to a quick resumption of the six-party nuclear talks.

"I don't think that there will be any breakthrough on this issue achieved during this trip," Zhu said. "North Korea now insists that the U.S. drop the sanctions. It's very hard for China to persuade North Korea to give up that demand."

Unless Washington bends on the sanctions, or other parties to the talks come up with more economic aid, Zhu said, "the talks can hardly be resumed."

In what appeared to be a breakthrough on Sept. 19, North Korea signed an accord with China, Russia, Japan, the United States and South Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for cooperation in energy, trade and investment.

Pyongyang quickly backtracked, saying it wouldn't abandon nuclear weapons until the other parties provided it with light-water nuclear reactors for civilian use.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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