Kick-starting the year with a burst of diplomacy, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is on a trip to Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, an opportunity for the two sides to strategize ahead of a possible second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
A train presumably carrying Kim was spotted late Monday night in the Chinese border city of Dandong, where security was suddenly tightened.
The North Korean leader is accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju, as well as senior officials including negotiator Kim Yong Chol and Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho. The trip coincides with what is believed to be his 35th birthday.
The surprise visit, widely seen to be yet another counsel-seeking mission by Mr Kim in preparation for his anticipated second meeting with United States President Donald Trump, comes as U.S. trade representatives are in town for talks aimed at resolving a trade dispute between the two economic giants that has rattled global markets for months.
Kim and Trump pledged to work towards denuclearisation at their landmark June summit in Singapore, but the agreement was short on specifics.
Diplomatic sources in Beijing said that Kim's fourth trip to China came at the request of the North Korean leader and that Pyongyang had initially requested a visit in December but that it was pushed to early January because of Xi's tight domestic schedule.
Asked whether China was linking the two issues in an interview Monday with CNBC, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "The Chinese have been very clear to us that these are separate issues".
As a tit-for-tat tariff war waged by Trump early previous year has shown signs of choking China's economic growth, Xi "really wants to resolve the trade dispute with the United States", the diplomat said, adding, "North Korea can be a very good bargaining chip".
In a New Year's Day address Kim warned that it might take an alternative path if US sanctions and pressure did not ease.
Kim's trip comes as the USA and North Korea look to settle the North's decades-long pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. Still, that risks bringing North Korea under greater control of its larger and wealthier neighbor - something the regime has fought to avoid over the past six decades.
"With Chinese and U.S. 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".
Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that Kim will remain in the country until Thursday.
China's foreign ministry said Kim would meet with Chinese leaders to discuss "relevant issues" but did not reveal more about his itinerary. But the current North Korean leader shows no sign of an aversion to taking to the air. North Korea insists that Washington first build trust by lifting the sanctions imposed on that country.
South Korea's Blue House on Tuesday confirmed that it has been notified by both North Korea and China ahead of the Kim's Beijing visit and has been "sharing information with both countries".
"China has always supported both sides to continue to hold talks and to reach a positive outcome", Lu said.
On Monday, the first day of the two-day vice ministerial-level trade talks, the United States missile destroyer sailed near a group of islands in the waters claimed by China, as part of the Pentagon's "freedom of navigation" operation aimed at challenging Beijing's military activities there.
As talks with the United States stall over ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program, a question hangs: Will he and Trump meet again?
"As to whether this is used as a bargaining chip by China in trade talks, I believe more Americans would think so than Chinese do", the tweet went on to say.
President Trump stated on Sunday that the United States is "negotiating a location" for his second summit with Kim.
Shi Yinhong, an worldwide relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said Kim's trip would have no direct influence on the progress of trade talks.