SEOUL, South Korea – Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is expected to meet top Beijing officials today, a day after he arrived in China for his first journey abroad in years, reports said.

Kim’s trip comes amid mounting tension on the divided Korean peninsula over speculation his impoverished communist regime may have torpedoed a South Korean warship.

China’s leadership has also 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.

A luxury 17-car train carrying Kim pulled into the Chinese border town of Dandong on Monday morning, according to South Korean and Japanese media reports. Kim then headed to the Chinese port city of Dalian aboard a passenger vehicle and is believed to have spent the night there, they said.

Photos and TV footage taken in the Chinese port city of Dalian showed a man in sunglasses who appeared to be Kim getting into a car, surrounded by security personnel. Some of the footage showed the man dragging his left leg while walking.

He is expected to travel on to Beijing aboard his train for talks with top Chinese leaders including President Hu Jintao as early as tonight, Seoul’s mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified diplomatic source in Beijing.

The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper in Seoul carried a similar report. YTN television network, however, said Chinese officials may visit Dalian to meet Kim because a 12-hour railroad journey from Dalian to Beijing could be a burden for Kim who suffered a reported stroke in 2008.

Kim’s visit, if confirmed, 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 since Chinese President Hu invited Kim for a visit to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the allies.

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.

Kim’s special armored train arrived to a phalanx of soldiers and police in the Chinese border town of Dandong, South Korean and Japanese media reported. Kim is known to shun air travel.

Japan’s Kyodo News agency, citing unidentified sources knowledgeable about China-North Korea relations, also said Kim was seen at Dalian’s five-star Furama Hotel and published photos that appeared to be Kim.

A switchboard operator at the hotel, where the presidential suite runs more than $2,100 a night, told The Associated Press that security had been tightened but would not say whether or not Kim was expected.

There was no mention of the Kim trip to China in North Korean state media, which typically reports on his journeys after he returns home. Chinese and South Korean officials could not confirm Kim’s reported trip.

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.


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