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Kim Jong-il trip spurs succession speculation

Kim Jong-il reportedly met top Chinese leaders on Friday in an apparent bid for Beijing's diplomatic and financial support for a succession plan involving his third and youngest son, who is said to be traveling with him.

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South Koreans watch a TV broadcasting file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

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North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il reportedly met top Chinese leaders on Friday in an apparent bid for Beijing's diplomatic and financial support for a succession plan involving his third and youngest son, who is said to be traveling with him.

Many North Korea watchers predict the son — Kim Jong Un, believed to be in his 20s — will be appointed to a key party position at a ruling Workers' Party meeting early next month — the first such gathering in decades.

To pull off the event with sufficient fanfare, North Korea will need Chinese aid, particularly following the devastating floods that battered the country's northwest this month, analysts said.

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"The convention needs to be festive with the party giving out food or normalizing day-to-day life for its people but with the recent flood damages, they are not able to," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul.

"The most important thing on Kim's agenda is scoring Chinese aid, which will ensure that the meeting will be well received by the people."

Choi Jae-sung, an opposition lawmaker in South Korea's parliamentary intelligence committee, told The Associated Press that Kim Jong Il had breakfast Friday with a member of China's powerful Politburo Standing Committee in a hotel in northeast China's Jilin city, where he apparently stayed the night before.

Choi said Kim Jong Un accompanied his father, citing unidentified sources.

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South Korea's MBC television reported Kim may later have met President Hu Jintao in Changchun, about an hour's drive from Jilin. It cited an unidentified diplomatic source in Beijing as saying Hu arrived in the afternoon and the two held talks at the city's South Lake Hotel.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency cited several unidentified diplomatic sources as saying Hu had gone to Changchun.

Asked whether Kim was visiting China, a duty officer with the press office of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said late Friday that "China and North Korea consistently maintain high level contacts. We will release the relevant information in good time."

China, as North Korea's biggest diplomatic ally and a major source of food aid and oil, would expect to be kept in the loop about major political transitions in Pyongyang, but the Beijing leadership is not likely to be enthusiastic about the prospect of another dynastic succession next door, said Zhu Feng, director of Peking University's Center for International and Strategic Studies.

Kim has three sons but is said to favor the youngest, despite his youth and inexperience. However, little is known about Kim Jong Un. The only known photo of him was taken when he was a child. If he assumes power, it will continue a dynastic tradition that began when Kim Jong Il took over after the death of his father, the late President Kim Il Sung.

"No, I don't think that China will be pleased to see that sort of succession, with Kim Jong Il's third son also now taking over as prince heir," said Zhu. "We would like to see the transition of power go smoothly but I don't think China will show any admiration for this sort of succession."

Kim Jong Il received years of support from his father, who appointed him to crucial posts, purged opponents, fostered contacts with powerful members of the government and created a cult of personality for him. Kim Jong Un has received little of this preparation.

Yet, withholding support is not a real option for Beijing because stability in North Korea remains a strategic priority for the Chinese government, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

"Whomever leads this regime, China has to accept it, and he will be at minimum a friend to China," Shi said. "I think China's relationship to this succession process is much simpler than most people around the world take into account."

"For China, this is an issue of having, at minimum, stability for its neighbor," he said.

IN PICTURES: Cult of Personality - Inside North Korea

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