Asia Society's John Delury Speaks to Kim Jong-il's Surprise Visit to China

A TV grab from CCTV taken on May 7, 2010 shows Chinese President Hu Jintao (R) shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in Beijing on May 7. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is visiting China today with his son, who is also Kim's suspected heir, South Korean officials said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is visiting China today with his son, who is also Kim's suspected heir, South Korean officials said . The train believed to be carrying the pair left around midnight Wednesday night. Oddly, Kim's trip to China coincides with former President Jimmy Carter's visit to Pyongyang. As usual, the news of Kim doing something unexpected has inspired a great amount of speculation from analysts. Asia Society Senior Fellow John Delury told the New York Times that Kim's decision "begged for explanation." 

"Some will say the trip is related to North Korean succession, but why seek Beijing's blessing for transferring power to his son in a last-minute trip before the momentous Korean Workers' Party meeting expected in early September, rather than do so more discreetly during his previous trip in May?" Delury said. Mr. Delury also thought it unlikely that Kim would go to speak with China about his country's nuclear weapons program, saying, "That's what diplomats are for."

So why would North Korea's leader choose to travel to his country's closest ally, especially after extending an invitation to Carter? Despite Delury's doubts, analysts still say the purpose of the meeting may be to seek China's approval of Kim's succession plans. It is widely believed that Kim has been in poor health since a suspected stroke in 2008 and many suspect that he is eager to establish his son's rule.

Other analysts say the visit may have more to do with next months WPK meeting and the fact that North Korea is hurting economically. This visit marks Kim's second meeting with China since May. China is North Korea's most powerful ally and Kim depends heavily on China to aid his country's failing economy. Of course, the two suspected motives-succession and economic woes-are not mutually exclusive.

A third speculation, that North Korea means to snub the United States by giving China priority over special guest Carter, was suggested by an anonymous analyst in the New York Times