South Korea said on Tuesday it was closely watching events that are unfolding rapidly in Beijing, where diplomatic sources said a senior North Korean official was visiting amid reports it was leader Kim Jong Un ahead of a series of historic summits.
Bloomberg, citing three unidentified sources, reported on 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 also comes ahead of a potential summit with 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 bilateral ties between North Korea and China would be a positive sign before the planned summits, he said.
A Reuters reporter saw a convoy leave Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guest House, where senior foreign leaders often stay on visits to the Chinese capital, and drive north on Tuesday morning. It was unclear where the convoy was headed.
A senior U.S. official who follows North Korea closely said the available evidence suggested that Kim had traveled to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, but stressed that it has not been confirmed.
Diplomatic sources in Beijing said a senior North Korean official was in town, but did not know exactly who.
Underscoring the mystery surrounding the trip, one senior Beijing-based diplomatic source told Reuters 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 the city. She visited South Korea for the 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 South Korean President Moon Jae-in at his office in Seoul during the Olympics in February.
The U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was unlikely Kim Jong Un would have sent his sister on such an important mission because that might create an impression she is important enough to be sent on such a high-profile trip, 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 also 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.”
The details of Kim Jong Un’s visit, including its purpose and itinerary, were not yet known, Bloomberg reported. 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 be 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 the Chinese border city of Dandong where the main train link between the two countries is located.
The North Korean leader is due to hold separate summits with South Korea in late April and the United States in May, including a potential meeting with Trump.
“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 the North’s biggest ally.
“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.