BEIJING (AFP) –Speculation that Kim Jong Un visited Beijing on his first-ever foreign trip as North Korea’s leader was rife yesterday after Japanese media reported the arrival and departure of a special train met by an honour guard.
Heightened security at possible venues for a high-level meeting, motorcades driven under police escort, and a non-denial from Chinese authorities also fuelled the belief that Mr Kim had come to pay his respects to President Xi Jinping.
If confirmed, it would mark Mr Kim’s first trip abroad since coming to power in 2011 and signal an intriguing twist in a rapid diplomatic thaw that has opened the door to separate summits between Mr Kim and the presidents of South Korea and the US.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported the train’s departure from a Beijing station but said it was not clear if Mr Kim was aboard, a day after its arrival sparked rampant speculation about the mystery passenger’s identity.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying sidestepped a request to confirm if Mr Kim or another high-level North Korean official was visiting, saying she was “not aware” of the situation.
“If we have information, we will publish it,” Ms Hua said, adding that China was willing to work with North Korea to “continue to play a positive and constructive role in order to realise the denuclearisation of the peninsula”.
Some analysts had suggested China – the North’s only major ally – had been sidelined by Pyongyang’s approaches to Seoul and Washington, but a visit by Mr Kim would put Beijing firmly back at the center of the diplomatic scrum.
At the Diaoyutai guest house, where Mr Kim’s late father Kim Jong Il stayed during his visits to Beijing, there was an unusually heavy police presence with officers stationed every 50-100 meters in front of the imposing compound.
There was also heightened security at two possible venues for a high-level meeting – the Great Hall of the People and Zhongnanhai.
South Korea’s biggest-selling newspaper Choson Ilbo cited a senior Seoul intelligence official as saying that Mr Kim had been the visitor. Other media speculated it might have been Mr Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong or the country’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam.
The mystery began after Japanese broadcaster Nippon TV showed footage of a train – similar to that used for foreign visits by Kim Jong Il – pulling in to Beijing Station and being met by a military honour guard and a convoy of black limousines.
Kim Jong Il, who was known to be fearful of flying, visited China several times on his private armoured train.
The younger Kim has not undertaken any official trip abroad since taking power following his father’s death in December 2011.
He has yet to host a single head of state, having snubbed the president of Mongolia who visited Pyongyang in 2013.
In Washington, the White House said it was unable to confirm Kim’s presence in Pyongyang and the government in Seoul said only that it was closely monitoring the situation.
High-level inter-Korean talks are scheduled for Thursday to pave the way for a summit between Mr Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April. Discussions have also begun on a possible summit with Mr Trump in May.