BEIJING - Diplomatic circles here buzzed with speculation yesterday that Kim Jong Il, the reclusive leader of North Korea, had secretly visited the Chinese capital this week in advance of a historic summit with archrival South Korea this month.
Chinese officials would neither confirm nor deny the visit, and North Koreans said it didn't happen. Some political observers, though, said they believed that Kim had come to Beijing seeking help before his meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.
"I'm 85 percent sure it's occurred," said a Western diplomat. "I assume he's probably here to see what the Chinese are willing to do about aid before he talks to the South Koreans."
A visit by Kim would mark his first known trip outside the Stalinist state in as many as 18 years and - despite the secrecy - would fit with the growing openness the regime has shown recently. Long isolated from most of the world, famine-ravaged North Korea established diplomatic relations with Italy and Australia earlier this year.
In April, Kim surprised the world by agreeing to the summit with South Korea's president. The meeting is scheduled for June 12-14 in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. It will be the first time that leaders of the two Koreas have met since the peninsula was divided more than a half-century ago.
The summit marks one of the biggest steps toward peace in one of the most dangerous spots in East Asia and home to the last standoff of the Cold War. North Korea, a rigid Communist state, has been teetering on the edge of economic collapse for years and is generally viewed as a menace by its neighbors.
Poor and hungry, North Korea will sell practically anything - heroin, counterfeit U.S. $100 bills and elephant ivory from Africa - to survive, say U.S. officials and those from other countries.
Although Pyongyang agreed in 1994 to put its nuclear weapons program on hold, most observers believe that it is continuing to try to develop nuclear capabilities. The U.S. continues to station 37,000 soldiers in South Korea to provide protection from potential invasion.
Circumstantial evidence largely fueled rumors of Kim's visit this week.
Diplomatic sources said a line of limousines with neither license plates nor the customary national flags shuttled Monday between the Great Hall of the People, China's parliament building, and the Diaoyutai guest house, where visiting dignitaries stay.
A "special train" was reported to be traveling through the northeastern Chinese cities of Shenyang and Dandong, along the Yalu River across the border from North Korea.
An unidentified witness said Kim arrived at Diaoyutai on Monday with a delegation of 50 to 60 and left yesterday by rail.
"He stayed for two days," the witness told Reuters. Employees at Diaoyutai and others, though, said they hadn't seen any large unidentified delegations in recent days.
"There is nobody called Kim Jong Il staying here and no delegation from North Korea," said a Diaoyutai employee, who identified himself by only his surname, Zheng.
A presidential summit in 1994 was cancelled after the death of Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung.