BEIJING/SEOUL - A train believed to be carrying a senior North Korean delegation left the Chinese capital on Tuesday following a dramatic whirlwind visit that some reports said included the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
South Korea said it was closely watching events in Beijing, where a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman deflected a question on whether Kim, his sister or some other senior North Korean was visiting.
“At present I have no understanding of the situation you mention. If there is news we will release it,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular daily briefing.
Diplomatic sources in Beijing said a senior North Korean official was in town, but did not know exactly who. Bloomberg News, citing three unidentified sources, reported late Monday that Kim was in Beijing in what would be his first known trip outside North Korea since taking power in 2011.
The unconfirmed visit comes ahead of planned summit meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump.
“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.
Improving ties between North Korea, which is pursuing nuclear and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and China would be a positive sign before the planned summits, he said.
A convoy was also seen leaving Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where senior foreign leaders often stay, and drive north Tuesday morning. It was unclear where the convoy was headed.
Later, what was believed to be the delegation’s train was seen pulling out of a Beijing station. The group was reported to have arrived in China on Sunday after crossing from North Korea in the border city of Dandong.
A senior U.S. official who follows North Korea closely said the available evidence suggested that Kim had travelled to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, but stressed that has not been confirmed.
Underscoring the mystery, one senior Beijing-based diplomatic source said simply: “We just don’t know.”
One source with ties to China’s leadership said it was possible Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was in town. She visited South Korea for the Winter Olympics last month, paving the way for a summit between the two Koreas.
South Korean news agency Newsis reported that Kim Yo Jong and the North’s ceremonial leader, Kim Yong Nam, were visiting Beijing, citing an unidentified North Korea-related source in Beijing.
The pair visited Moon at his office in Seoul during the Winter Olympics in February.
The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was unlikely Kim Jong Un would have sent his sister on such an important mission, unlike her ceremonial visit to South Korea for the Olympics.
On the contrary, the official said, a summit with Xi would underscore Kim’s standing as a world leader.
Xi and Kim Jong Un both have reasons to meet in advance of Kim’s meetings with Moon and possibly Trump, the U.S. official said.
“Xi has met Trump, and in many respects learned how to deal with him better than some people here do,” the official said.
“At the same time, despite the recent tensions, he needs to know what Kim has in mind for dealing with the South and the U.S., and he still has a lot of leverage with the North.”
Jacques deLisle, who teaches Chinese law and politics at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said in an interview that Beijing may be trying to feel Kim out.
“Presumably, part of what’s on the agenda is the Chinese want a sense of what Kim expects or is seeking in the meeting with the U.S., if it ever occurs, as well as their attempt, of course, to influence it,” deLisle said.
Kim’s delay in visiting China since his ascension as North Korea’s leader seven years ago reflects “strains in that relationship,” deLisle said. “China has grown more frustrated with North Korea over the years especially under Kim the younger, Kim Jong Un.”
Ties between China and North Korea, who fought together against South Korean and UN forces during the Korean War, have been strained as China backed sanctions crimping the country’s energy imports and sources of foreign cash.
While China opposes North Korea’s nuclear weapons, it also doesn’t want to see Kim’s regime collapse or war break out on the Korean Peninsula. Any instability could lead to a refugee crisis or potentially U.S. troops on its border.
“There are precedents for the North Koreans going to Beijing to talk about what they should do next,” James Edward Hoare, associate fellow of Chatham House and a former U.K. diplomat to Pyongyang, said in an interview. “If it’s true it’s probably to ask advice on how they should handle a meeting with the Americans.”
Japanese media reported on Monday that a high-ranking Pyongyang official appeared to have arrived by train in Beijing.
The Blue House official said the South Korean government had been aware of “related movements” in North Korea, such as the train, for a few days but he could not confirm whether Kim or another high-ranking North Korean official was visiting China.
Beijing is the main ally of secretive and isolated North Korea, as well as its biggest trading partner.
China has not confirmed any visit by a North Korean but has not totally censored speculation Kim Jong Un might have been in town.
Searches on Baidu News, China’s equivalent of Google News, brought up two stories in the simplified Chinese edition of Taiwanese newspaper the China Times that reported, citing what it said were internet rumors, that he was on a secret visit to Beijing.
One of the paper’s reports showed pictures taken from Chinese social media of what was purportedly Kim Jong Un’s train in China.
There were also posts on Chinese social media talking about the possibility Kim Jong Un was in China, some citing family members in Dandong. 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.
The North Korean leader is due to hold separate summits with South Korea in late April and the United States in May.
“The fact that the summits are being held has been beyond our expectations. Right now, the situation surrounding the Korean peninsula is moving very quickly and it would be inadvisable to think with prejudice,” the Blue House official said.
Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, met then-president Jiang Zemin in China in 2000 before a summit between the two Koreas in June that year.
Kim Jong Il was considered at the time to have made the visit to reaffirm close ties with China.
“North Korea likely wants to confirm its relationship with China and believes it has some leverage with which it can ask for things from China,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, Professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Korea University.
“If North Korea speaks with the United States on its own, it might feel it is at a disadvantage but, if it has China as an ally, Pyongyang may think it will be able to protect its interests and profits during the summits,” Yoo said.