BEIJING, Speculation is rising that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has visited China again in an apparent move to strengthen the relationship with his country's traditional ally ahead of his upcoming summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.
According to sources, an apparent North Korean plane carrying a top Pyongyang official arrived in the Chinese northeastern city of Dalian on Monday, a day before Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to attend a ceremony marking the test operation of his country's aircraft carrier.
Should the North Korean official on the plane be confirmed to be the North's leader, it would be his second known visit to China following the surprise trip there for his first summit with Xi in late March.
"It appears that an apparently top-ranking North Korean official has visited Dalian," a source said, declining to be named. "Considering various circumstances related to the protocol, chances are high that the official would be Chairman Kim."
A series of posts on the Chinese social media site Weibo shows that security has been tightened around an airport in Dalian in an indication of a visit by a top foreign official, with the roads leading to the Bangchuidao tourist district blocked.
China's foreign ministry remained noncommittal.
"There is no information to provide now," ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said during a regular press briefing.
"North Korea and China are close neighbors and are maintaining normal communication and exchanges," he added.
Seoul's foreign ministry said it is trying to verify "related situations."
"As there are no official announcements from China or North Korea, there is no content we can confirm now," ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk told reporters.
Asked if Beijing has informed Seoul of anything related to the ongoing visit, Noh said, "Regarding the Korean Peninsula situation and related matters, there has been close cooperation at each level of the South Korean and Chinese (governments)."
The trip, though still unconfirmed, comes as China is seeking to avoid being sidelined in a flurry of diplomacy on the reclusive state, with the North seeking to improve ties with its traditional ally as its backer in case its nuclear negotiations with the U.S. get bogged down, analysts said.
Ahead of the Trump-Kim summit expected to come next month, Washington has been seen ramping up pressure on Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear ambitions.
The Washington-funded broadcaster Voice of America has reported that the U.S. State Department opposed any launch of what Pyongyang claims to be "peaceful" satellites, saying U.N. Security Council resolutions require the communist state to abandon its ballistic missile program in a "complete, verifiable and irreversible" manner.
The report came after new U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently mentioned the "permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling" of the North's nuclear program, an expression that experts say highlights Washington's hard-line stance on the denuclearization front.
After years of estrangement, Pyongyang is seen striving for enhanced ties with Beijing, which analysts say could be part of its "fallback" plan or "insurance policy" ahead of its summit with Washington.
Beijing, on its part, has appeared to be increasingly wary that its communist ally could edge closer to its strategic competitor, Washington.
Source: Yonhap News Agency