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SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly may soon visit China for the first time in four years for talks that could pave the way for a return to nuclear negotiations and win aid to prop up his state's broken economy.
Following are some questions about what will likely be a highly secretive visit by the reclusive Kim, whose few trips to China, the North's biggest benefactor, have often led to moves that decreased the security threat his state poses to the region.
North Korea needs money, especially since U.N. sanctions imposed after its May 2009 nuclear test squeezed its once lucrative arms trade and a major currency policy blunder at home late last year put a strain on its already dysfunctional economy.
China has economically and politically supported its neighbour through decades of oppressive rule and defiant military grandstanding that left it deeply isolated.
News reports say Kim may be trying to shore up investment in new projects that his state has launched to increase its meagre international trade and commerce.
A South Korean think tank said the North's trade shrank last year for the first time in a decade after it was hit with the U.N. sanctions.
In 2009, bilateral trade between China and North Korea was worth $2.7 billion, a fall of 4 percent compared to 2008 numbers, according to Chinese customs statistics. North Korea's exports to China rose by 4.3 percent to $793 million.
Kim may also be looking to increase the flow of oil, food and goods that he depends upon the keep the economy going.
Kim may tour China's northeastern industrial region, spanning Jilin and Liaoning provinces and Tianjin, a port city near Beijing, looking for deals to boost business across the border.
Beijing may hope such a tour -- through a landscape not too different from North Korea's -- will encourage Kim to embrace market economic reforms like China's.
China will expect something from Kim in return, and that would be for him to end his year-long boycott of nuclear disarmament talks hosted by Beijing that also involve the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
The North's return to the talks could sharply ease tensions that spiked with the North's missile tests and its second nuclear test last year that triggered U.N. sanctions.
The U.N. sanctions, however, are not likely to be lifted just because the North returns to the table, South Korean and U.S. officials have said.
Most likely after China's national parliament closes its annual session, which is scheduled to end on Sunday.
Before then, China's leaders will not be able to afford the distractions of a flamboyant and demanding leader who will expect a full state-guest welcome, a summit with President Hu Jintao and an elaborate banquet.
He likes to have a large group of aides and security, and, according to a former body guard, some young women with him. Kim travels in secret aboard his personal armoured train and his public appearances only are reported by his state's fawning media after he is safely back home.
Kim is believed to be averse to flying, having told aides about the possibility of getting shot down, "It'll be all over".
The last time Kim went to China was in January 2006, when he toured the country's commercial centres.
Kim's trip to China in 2000 was soon followed by a summit in Pyongyang with South Korea's leader and the start of two major joint development projects in North Korea.
A China trip by him in 2004 led to a push for talks on the North's nuclear programmes. That visit also included President Hu treating the guest to the renowned local treat of roast Peking Duck at a famous restaurant in the heart of Beijing.
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Alex Richardson