By Royston Chan
YANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - North Korea's secretive leader Kim Jong-il toured east China on Monday, continuing a visit that suggests he is taking fresh interest in the success of reforms in Asia's biggest economy and his isolated country's only major benefactor.
China's leaders have repeatedly prodded Kim to open up North Korea's impoverished and state-dominated economy, something analysts say he has been reluctant to do for fear it could undermine his family dynasty's hold on power.
Premier Wen Jiabao told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Tokyo that Kim was traveling through China to study "economic development," Yonhap News quoted a presidential aide as saying.
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.
Cai Jian, a professor of Korean studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said that though Chinese leaders hope Kim will learn from and emulate China's economic reforms, the chances of him copying China's model were scant.
"It's not that they're unwilling to learn, but they do face many difficulties. He would worry that if he carried out Chinese-style reform and opening up, then his regime and rule would be shaken -- that would be his foremost worry," Cai said.
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 Yangzhou officials when he arrived on Sunday.
His visit was "an apparent move to seek economic cooperation between Beijing and Pyongyang," the report said.
Security outside the state guest house in Yangzhou, where Kim and his entourage could be staying, was tight, with police cars sitting in front its main entrance.
Police also closed off the Slender West Lake, Yangzhou's main tourist attraction, in the morning. It was unclear why.
While 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.
Kim's latest visit overlapped with a weekend summit that brought together China, Japan and South Korea. 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 neighbours.
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 and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)