China and North Korea confirmed Monday that their leaders met while Kim Jong Il was on a secretive trip to China, but there were no signs of his son on what was suspected to be a visit to drum up support for a succession plan.
Though reporters and diplomats had tracked the reclusive North Korean dictator's travels by trying to spot his special train and motorcade through northeast China, the simultaneous dispatches from both countries' state media were the first official confirmation of Kim's five-day visit. The releases likely signaled that the trip was over as both countries usually wait for Kim to return home before acknowledging his visits.
China Central Television showed footage on its main evening broadcast of a paunchy, 68-year-old Kim embracing Chinese President Hu Jintao on Friday in the northeast city of Changchun.
Not seen in the footage nor mentioned in other Chinese and North Korean media was Kim's third son and heir-apparent, Kim Jong Un, who was rumored to have been part of the delegation. Foreign diplomats in Beijing briefed separately on the visit said Communist Party officials also did not say if the son was present.
Diplomats and analysts who follow the isolated, impoverished country have speculated that a goal of Kim's trip was to bolster support from China, North Korea's main benefactor, for his youngest son, ahead of a rare Workers' Party congress next month.
While the state media accounts did not mention Kim's son by name, the elder dictator did touch on North Korea's political transition, telling Chinese leaders that their successors should build upon the strong bonds the countries share.
"With the international situation remaining complicated, it is our important historical mission to hand over to the rising generation the baton of the traditional friendship passed over by the revolutionary forerunners of the two countries as a precious asset so as to carry it forward through generations," the Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as telling Hu in a banquet toast on Friday.
Beijing's continued good will is crucial for North Korea since its ailing economy is unable to provide enough food for its people to survive. China provides food assistance and nearly all of North Korea's oil, and much of North Korea's trade passes through China.
Beijing has also provided diplomatic support, encouraging Kim to rejoin six-nation talks on ending North Korea's nuclear program and shielding the country from even harsher sanctions by the United Nations. China's Xinhua News Agency said Kim told Hu that North Korea hoped for an early resumption of the negotiations.
Those talks stalled when North Korea test-fired a long-range missile and exploded a nuclear device last year. Prospects for restarting negotiations were undermined further after a South Korean warship sank in March, killing 46 sailors, and Seoul and Washington accused North Korea of torpedoing the vessel - a claim Pyongyang denies.
Officials from the International Liaison Department, the Communist Party office which handles China's relations with North Korea, told diplomats from Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States that Kim's visit was previously arranged and largely focused on the economy, said Asian and Western diplomats.
CCTV said Kim visited Jilin, Changchun and Harbin, once centers of heavy industry under the planned economy that have tried to remake themselves under free-market competition. Among the sites Kim visited, state television showed a field with of large orange pumpkins.
Those cities are also important to North Koreans as places where Kim's father and revolutionary patriarch Kim Il Sung went to school and engaged in activities to oust Japan, the region's colonial occupier in the first half of the 20th century.
Cui Yingjiu, a retired professor of Korean literature at China's Peking University and former classmate of Kim Jong Il, said the North Korean leader likely brought his son along for a family history lesson.
"I think he is probably bringing his son to visit the middle school that Kim Il Sung attended, and to visit the revolutionary site where he fought against Japan," Cui said.
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 his own father's death.
Kim's trip is his second to China in three months - unusual for someone who rarely leaves his country. His May trip included talks with Hu and tours of companies and economic zones.
That trip, unlike the current one, was preceded by months of speculation that Kim would visit China.