April 3, 2010 / 1:59 AM / 10 years ago

North Korean cargo train sparks Kim trip speculation

DANDONG, China (Reuters) - The train thought to be carrying Kim Jong-il to China appears to have been a cargo freighter on a journey unrelated to the reclusive North Korean leader, witnesses at the border said on Saturday.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (C) visits to the Daeheungsan Machinery Factory at the undisclosed place in North Korea, in this undated picture released by North Korea's official news agency KCNA March 26, 2010. REUTERS/KCNA

South Korea’s Yonhap news sparked speculation that Kim may be heading to China when it said one of the special trains Kim uses on rare trips outside his hermit state was seen in the Chinese border city of Dandong.

Witnesses in Dandong who saw the train cross in the pre-dawn hours and video footage shot by Reuters TV indicates it was a freighter and not Kim’s armored train.

“It was an ordinary cargo train, nothing special,” a Dandong transport official who asked not to be named told Reuters.

South Korean officials said this week a trip was imminent, with analysts saying a visit would help revive dormant international talks hosted by Beijing on ending Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

The North’s official news agency said in a report on Saturday that Kim had watched a musical performance in Pyongyang. It did not give a date for when he attended the event.

Kim’s few trips to China have often led to moves that decrease the security threat Pyongyang poses to the economically vibrant region.

His trips abroad are usually shrouded in secrecy and his state’s official media does not report on them until his journey is over and he is safely back in Pyongyang.

The visit would be the first since January 2006 when Kim toured China’s commercial centers and his first trip abroad since his recovery from a suspected stroke in 2008.

The North has come under pressure to return to six-country nuclear talks due to U.N. sanctions imposed after a May 2009 atomic test. The sanctions have dealt a blow to its wobbly economy, and a botched currency move late last year has sparked inflation and rare civil unrest.

Tensions were high on the peninsula after a South Korean navy ship exploded and sank last week near a contested sea border with North Korea, leaving 46 sailors missing and likely dead.

The body of one of the missing sailors washed up near a South Korean controlled island on Saturday, local media reported.

South Korea has not ruled out blaming a North Korean torpedo strike for sinking its 1,200 tonne corvette Cheonan, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said on Friday.

Initial speculation that North Korea might have sunk the vessel spooked Wall Street when news first broke last week. Share prices dipped partly on geopolitical concerns of escalating conflict between the rival Koreas, and the won dropped against the dollar.

Additional reporting by Kim Yeon-hee in Seoul; Writing by Jon Herskovitz in Seoul; Editing by Jon Hemming

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