BEIJING — A U.S. government team was in North Korea on a rare trip Tuesday to assess food shortages, while the country's reclusive leader Kim Jong Il reportedly traveled to an eastern Chinese city to study Beijing's economic reforms.
The American delegation — led by Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues — will use its five-day visit to verify food supply surveys conducted by the United Nations and U.S.-based charities and see if there are ways to monitor aid distribution.
The State Department said King would also raise human rights concerns and the detention of U.S. citizen Eddie Jun, who was arrested in November.
This is the first visit by an American human rights envoy to the North, though King himself traveled to the country as a congressional aide. Pyongyang detested King's predecessor, the first to hold the post. Jay Lefkowitz was a harsh critic of the country's rights record and even took aim at his bosses in the George W. Bush administration for pursuing nuclear disarmament talks.
King is more measured in his comments. What some believe is a dire need for food in the North may also have played a part in the decision to allow King in.
North Korea asked for food assistance in January following summer floods that hit staple crops and in the midst of a bitter winter. While humanitarian organizations say aid is urgently needed, the U.S., like other international donors, distrusts the secretive North Korean government, which has pursued illicit nuclear weapons and missile programs despite its dire food shortages.
A U.N. World Food Program assessment released two months ago found more than 6 million of North Korea's 23 million people were in urgent need of aid. It said the North's public distribution system would run out of food between May and July.
South Korea is skeptical that the situation is so dire and suspects the government is stockpiling food secretly ahead of the 2012 centennial of the birth of the communist nation's founder, Kim Il Sung
While King's trip was announced well in advance, virtually nothing is known about the agenda for Kim's visit to his country's most important ally that began Friday night. Beijing and Pyongyang delay publicity about Kim's visits until after he has crossed back into North Korea.
South Korea's Yonhap News agency said Kim arrived in the ancient capital of Nanjing from nearby Yangzhou, where he reportedly visited an industrial park and a shopping center on Monday.
Kim is believed to have met with Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to be China's next leader, and former President Jiang Zemin.
Unusually for China, Premier Wen Jiabao has confirmed that Kim is in the country, saying China invited him to study and hopefully adopt Beijing's market-oriented reforms that have transformed the economy into the world's second largest.
Kim's third trip to China in just over a year seems to indicate he is interested in better understanding his neighbor's success. China has provided diplomatic cover for the isolated hardline regime and is keen to see North Korea reform its moribund planned economy to head-off instability.
However, previous reform attempts have been abandoned and it's far from clear how far the ailing 69-year-old Kim — or his anointed successor, son Kim Jong Un — would be willing to go.
The question of whether Kim Jong Un was traveling with his father remained unresolved Tuesday, with China's official Global Times newspaper saying that the younger Kim was not in the delegation.
North Korea's exchanges with China have grown even more important since South Korea's conservative government halted unconditional food and fertilizer shipments in early 2008 and suspended almost all trade with the North. The U.N. and others have also enacted sanctions to punish the country for violating nuclear agreements.
The last U.S. food shipments were stopped in 2009 after nuclear monitors were expelled.
Associated Press writers Foster Klug in Seoul, South Korea, and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.