NORTH KOREA’S supreme leader Kim Jong Un is reportedly on a secret visit to China in what is said to be his first overseas trip since taking power in 2011 and ahead of a potential summit with US President Donald Trump.
On Tuesday, Bloomberg cited three unnamed sources who said Kim was on a surprise visit to Beijing, although details of his visit including its purpose were not yet known.
Japanese media reported earlier on Monday that a high-ranking Pyongyang official appeared to have arrived by train in Beijing.
Kyodo, citing sources close to the matter, said the visit of the official was intended to improve ties between Beijing and Pyongyang that have been frayed by North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and China’s backing of tough sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations Security Council.
Footage from Nippon News Network, owned by Nippon TV, showed what an announcer described as a green train carriage with yellow horizontal lines, part of a 21-car train, similar to the kind that Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, rode when he visited Beijing in 2011.
Beijing has traditionally been the closest ally of secretive and isolated North Korea. But Kim is due to hold summit meetings separately with China’s rivals, South Korea and the United States.
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Kim’s visit has appeared to catch the US and South Korea by surprise.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah told a press conference that “we don’t know if they’re necessarily true.”
“What I’ll just state, though, is that where we are with North Korea is in a better place than we used to be because the president’s maximum pressure campaign in conjunction with dozens of countries around the world has paid dividends and brought the North Koreans to the table,” Shah was quoted as sying.
Melissa Hanham, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in Monterey, California, said if the meeting is confirmed, it may prove to be more productive than a photo op between Trump and Kim in a few weeks.
“North Korea is often perceived as an ungrateful junior brother, but recent tensions and increased nuclear and missile capabilities mean China’s taking this seriously and doesn’t want to be left out of the process.”
Events are unfolding quickly on the Korean peninsula with planned summits between North and South Korea and the United States, a presidential official in Seoul said on Tuesday, amid reports of Kim’s visit in China.
“The presidential Blue House is watching things in Beijing very closely, while keeping all possibilities open,” said the senior official in Seoul, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Blue House, in a statement via a messaging app earlier on Monday, said the “government is closely communicating with relevant countries and monitoring the situation.”
Improving bilateral ties between North Korea and China would be a positive sign before the planned summits, he said.
Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said such a visit would reflect China’s effort to “get back in the game.”
“(Chinese President) Xi (Jinping) would not tolerate being third in line to meet Kim.”
Asked earlier at a daily news briefing about reports of an important North Korean visitor arriving at the Chinese border city of Dandong, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she was unaware of the situation.
Nobody answered the telephone at the North Korean embassy in Beijing on Monday evening.
Kyodo, citing sources, reported that on Sunday, a special train that might have carried the official passed through Dandong. Two sources in northeastern China also told Reuters that a North Korean visitor had crossed into Dandong by train.
The rail journey between Dandong and Beijing covers more than 1,100 km (680 miles). It takes at least 14 hours by ordinary service, according to Chinese railway timetables.
On Chinese social media some residents of Dandong said there had been high security around the train station there and said there were rumours that Kim was passing through.
Police tightened security along Beijing’s main east-west thoroughfare, Changan Avenue, mid-afternoon Monday, closing off the entrances to some of the buildings which face the road.
Police also cleared out all tourists from Tiananmen Square around the same time, which normally only happens when important meetings are happening in the Great Hall of the People, where top Chinese leaders often meet visiting heads of state.
There was a large security presence outside the Great Hall on Monday evening. Reuters reporters saw a lengthy motorcade, including a limousine with dark tinted windows, heading down Changan Avenue in the direction of the Diaoyutai State Guest House and away from the Great Hall of the People, flanked by a police escort on motor-bikes.
Also on Monday evening, the Beijing railway bureau warned on its microblog, without giving a reason, of multiple train delays of up to two hours in the Beijing region.
A source with ties to the Chinese military told Reuters that it was “not possible to rule out the possibility” that Kim was visiting Beijing, but cautioned this was not confirmed.
A diplomatic source told Reuters that there was heavy security around the Diaoyutai State Guest House, where some high level foreign visitors stay during visits to the city. Other diplomatic sources said they were aware of the speculation that Kim was visiting but were not able to immediately confirm it.
A Reuters reporter saw a convoy leave Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guest House, where senior foreign leaders often stay on visits to the Chinese capital, and drive north on Tuesday morning. It was unclear where the convoy was headed.
Diplomatic sources in Beijing said it was likely Kim was in China, but they could not confirm it definitively.
Visits to China by Kim Jong Il were only confirmed by both China and North Korea once he had left the country.
Kim Jong Il travelled by private train during his rare visits to China or Russia under tight security. Diplomats and other sources have said Kim Jong Il avoided flying for overseas trips due to security concerns.
The younger Kim, who was educated in Switzerland, is not known to have any fear of flying and state media have shown pictures of him aboard a plane. However, he is not known to have travelled outside the country since assuming power in late 2011 after his father’s death.
Additional reporting by Reuters