North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has arrived in Beijing for a secretive visit, just days after U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney left.
Both Chinese and North Korean officials declined to comment on Kim Jong Il's presence in Beijing - or even to confirm officially that he is here. It is the first time in three years that the reclusive North Korean leader has visited China, which is his closest ally.
Mr. Kim, who avoids air travel when visiting other countries, arrived in the Chinese capital by train Monday and was promptly escorted to meetings with Chinese officials.
The South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted unidentified sources as saying Mr. Kim met with Chinese President Hu Jintao shortly after his arrival.
Mr. Kim's arrival comes only days after a visit to Beijing by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who told Chinese leaders that progress is urgently needed in convincing North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in a complete and verifiable manner.
Senior U.S. officials said new intelligence suggests that North Korea is further along in developing nuclear weapons than previously thought.
North Korea officially responded to Mr. Cheney's comments in Beijing by calling him "mentally deranged."
China has hosted two rounds of multi-party negotiations on the North Korea issue, in which Pyongyang has demanded economic and security guarantees before it agrees to dismantle its nuclear program. Analysts expect those demands to be high on the agenda of Mr. Kim's discussions with Chinese leaders during his four-day visit.
International relations professor Choo Jae-woo at Kyung Hee University in Seoul says China is in a stronger-than-ever position to influence North Korea, which is desperately looking for ways to turn around an economy battered by mismanagement and famine.
"China, who's in the steering wheel seat, could apply some pressure," says Professor Choo. "If North Korea was really willing to carry out a normal trade relationship with China, then it would have to accept or make some kind of deal with Beijing."
Professor Choo says one example of China's influence is its growing purchase of North Korean iron and steel products. He says Pyongyang's iron and steel exports to China grew by 20 percent in the first quarter of the year. China, in turn, is North Korea's chief supplier of food and fuel.
Diplomats say the six nations involved in the negotiations are hoping to hold working-level meetings soon, and a third round of high-level negotiations are expected to take place before July. The talks involve China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia and the United States.