Speculation about a visit to Beijing by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is running high amid talk of preparations for a meeting between the North’s reclusive leader and US President Donald Trump.
The visit of a special train to Beijing and unusually heavy security at a guesthouse where prominent North Koreans have stayed in the past have fuelled talk that Kim was making his first visit to China as the North’s leader.
Such a trip would be seen as a potential precursor to Mr Kim’s planned summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April and his anticipated meeting with President Trump by May.
Analysts, however, questioned whether Mr Kim would make the visit to Beijing himself rather than send an envoy.
While there has been no word of a meeting with Chinese leaders, China has been one of North Korea’s most important allies even though relations have chilled recently because of Mr Kim’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
On Monday, heavy security was reported at the Friendship Bridge on the Yalu River marking the border between China and North Korea before a train passed.
There were reports of it transiting several stations on the way from North Korea to Beijing.
Japanese broadcaster NTV reported that the green and yellow train appeared very similar to the one that Mr Kim’s father and predecessor as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, took to Beijing in 2011.
Video that aired on NTV also showed a motorcade of black limousines waiting at the train station and rows of Chinese soldiers marching on what appeared to be a train platform. The video did not show anyone getting off the train.
At around 2:45pm local time on Tuesday, a convoy of about a dozen cars, including a large black limousine, was seen heading in the direction of the railway station.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, asked whether Mr Kim or another North Korean official was visiting Beijing, said, “I know you’re all very curious but I have no information on that.”
Past visits by Kim Jong Il to China were surrounded in secrecy, with Beijing only confirming his presence after he had crossed the border by train back into North Korea.
North Korea’s state-run media had no reports of a delegation travelling to China.
The speculation had been fuelled further on Monday evening when a vehicle convoy entered the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing and a military honour guard and heavy security were seen later.
The guesthouse had been the favoured residence of Kim Jong Il during his visits to Beijing.
South Korea’s presidential office said it could not confirm reports that the train carried Mr Kim nor a separate report that his sister was on board.
South Korean analysts were doubtful the visitor is Mr Kim. Since succeeding his father as leader in 2011, Mr Kim has touted an image of his country as diplomatic equal to China and it is unlikely he would sneak into Beijing for his first face-to-face meetings with the Chinese leadership, the analysts said.
They said it is more likely that Mr Kim sent a special envoy, possibly his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, to appease a traditional ally ahead of his planned meetings with the presidents of South Korea and the United States.
The envoy could potentially seek Chinese commitment for future support should North Korea’s talks with rivals fall through, said Du Hyeogn Cha, a visiting scholar at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.