North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived Tuesday on an unannounced visit to Beijing for talks with President Xi Jinping, as preparations ramp up for an expected second summit with Donald Trump.
China is the isolated, nuclear-armed North's key diplomatic ally and main source of trade and aid, and the visit is likely to heighten speculation about the potential meeting with the US president, as Kim could coordinate his strategy with Xi.
China's foreign ministry said Kim would meet with Chinese leaders to discuss relevant issues but did not reveal more about his itinerary.
The North Korean leader, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju and several senior officials, had set off from Pyongyang on his private train on Monday, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
The trip is at Xi's invitation and set to run until Thursday, according to KCNA and China's official Xinhua news agency.
His fourth visit to China comes a week after Kim warned in a New Year's speech that Pyongyang may change its approach to nuclear talks if Washington persists with sanctions.
Both Xi and Kim see value in coordinating their positions in advance of Trump-Kim summits. That appears to be a pattern, Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told AFP.
Kim also seeks Beijing's help in getting international sanctions eased.
While China and Russia have said the United Nations should consider relaxing sanctions on North Korea, Trump insisted Sunday that they would remain in full force and effect until the US sees very positive results in the nuclear issue.
Kim's trip coincides with the second day of talks between US and Chinese officials in Beijing aimed at resolving their trade war, but China rejected the notion that it was using the North Korean issue as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.
Xi also gains from a summit with Kim and the timing could not be any better, said Harry Kazianis, director of defence studies at the Center for the National Interest, a US think tank.
With Chinese and US officials meeting to discuss how to end the growing trade war between the two superpowers, it shows Beijing clearly has a North Korea card to play if it sees fit.
The trip began under the usual veil of secrecy and Kim has not been spotted in public since a motorcade believed to be carrying the North Korean entourage left a Beijing train station under heavy security early Tuesday.
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