Top North Korean official apparently in China: reports


Beijing (AFP)

An apparent North Korean train has arrived in Beijing, Japanese media reported on Monday, sparking speculation that a high-ranking official, possibly the country's leader Kim Jong Un, may have been aboard.

The Kyodo news agency, citing unidentified sources close to the matter, said the visit -- if confirmed that it was a North Korean official -- would likely be to improve ties between North Korea and China.

Kim has not conducted an official trip abroad since taking power in 2011 and relations between China and North Korea are frosty as Beijing has backed UN sanctions to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile tests.

China is North Korea's only diplomatic ally and its most important trade partner, but Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping have never met.

Kim, however, is expected to hold historic summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April and US President Donald Trump in May.

Chinese state media did not report the train's arrival in Beijing, or any North Korean visit to Beijing. There was also no mention of a visit on North Korean state media either.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman earlier told a regular press briefing that she was unaware of reports that North Korean officials were spotted at a train station in the northeastern Chinese city of Dandong, which borders North Korea, at the weekend.

Japanese broadcaster NNN showed images of a green train with yellow stripes arriving in China. Kim's father, the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, used a similar-looking train to travel abroad.

There was nothing out of the ordinary at the Beijing railway station when an AFP reporter visited it on Monday evening.

But the manager of a store at the plaza outside the station said there had been "unusual" activity in the afternoon.

"There were a lot of police officers outside and along the road in front of the station. The station was blocked inside," the man said.

Other shopkeepers declined to comment, saying they were not allowed to give interviews.

Train delays had fuelled speculation that a special train had arrived in Beijing.

The delays were posted on one of the railway network's accounts on Twitter-like Weibo, prompting users to post comments speculating about Kim's presence, which were later censored.

The North Korean embassy did not appear to have extra security. A police car stood idle outside one of the side entrances. The compound was quiet except for birds chirping.