By Royston Chan
YANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il toured east China on Monday, continuing a secretive visit that has highlighted the bond between his isolated regime and Asia's biggest economy.
This time, Kim appeared to be making a fresh show of interest in China's economic success, which Communist Party leaders in Beijing have repeatedly prodded him to emulate and open North Korea's state-dominated economy to more outside investment and market forces.
Premier Wen Jiabao told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Tokyo that Kim was traveling through China to study "economic development," Yonhap News reported on Sunday, citing a South Korean presidential aide.
Wen said Kim's trip would "offer the opportunity to understand China's development and utilise it for North Korea's development," according to Yonhap.
Kim's latest journey began on Friday and has so far taken him through the China's northeast to Yangzhou, a small, scenic city in the eastern province of Jiangsu, where his father, Kim Il-sung, met the then-president of China, Jiang Zemin, in 1991.
The English-language edition of the Global Times, a Beijing newspaper, cited unnamed sources as saying "Kim was received at the local train station by a number of Yangzhou government officials" when he arrived on Sunday.
His visit was "an apparent move to seek economic cooperation between Beijing and Pyongyang," the report said.
Although neither Beijing nor Pyongyang has officially confirmed Kim's visit, the unscheduled movements and tight security of a distinctive North Korean train have echoed the past trips by 69-year-old Kim, who travels only by train and visited twice last year to woo his powerful neighbor.
His latest visit overlapped with a weekend summit that brought together China, Japan and South Korea. [ID:nL3E7GM015] Kim may have timed his visit to make a point to the region that his country still enjoys Beijing's support.
Washington, Tokyo and Seoul have long urged China to apply more pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions and defuse tensions with its neighbors.
China, however, also sees North Korea as a strategic bulwark against the United States and its regional allies, and Kim's string of visits since last year have underscored that bond.
In recent years, Beijing has sought to shore up ties with the North with more aid and trade and visits there by leaders.
Economic links to China have become increasingly important for North Korea's survival, because of international sanctions and deteriorating ties with South Korea. In 2010, trade between China and North Korea was worth $3.5 billion, up 29.6 percent from 2009, according to Chinese customs statistics.
(Writing and additional reporting by Chris Buckley in BEIJING; Editing by Ron Popeski)