Reports emerged yesterday that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is on a secret visit in Beijing — however China has now denied knowledge of any such visit.

Speculation arose that a high level north Korean official, possibly Kim, had embarked on the visit when a photo of a train belonging to North Korea’s ruling family emerged online.

A spokesperson from China’s foreign ministry said it was not aware of a visit by the North Korean leader to Beijing.

Japanese broadcaster NTV said the green and yellow train was similar to one taken by former leader Kim Jong-il to Beijing in 2011.

NTV also aired footage of a motorcade of black limousines on standby at the station as rows of Chinese soldiers marched to the train terminal.

Stoking further intrigue, a beefed up security presence of paramilitary officers was noticed outside the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing, a favourite hotel of top North Korean officials on past visits to the capital.

This morning a convoy of official cars was also seen leaving the guesthouse’s east gate, Associated Press has reported.

Heavy security was also spotted at the Friendship Bridge on the Yalu River, where the border crosses between China and North Korea, as a train went by.

China enjoys warm relations with Pyongyang, the ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying added at a news briefing.

An official with knowledge of the visit told CNN that there was a strong possibility that it was indeed Kim Jung-un, while three anonymous sources confirmed the news to Bloomberg yesterday.

South Korea’s government is unaware of the visit, although it said the high-level of security suggested it was the leader himself.

A spokesperson from the South Korean presidential office said the government is closely monitoring the situation:

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The presidential Blue House is watching things in Beijing very closely, while keeping all possibilities open,” said the senior official in Seoul, speaking anonymously.

It was also possible that Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, was also in Beijing, a source in the capital, with ties to the government, told Reuters.

According to South Korean news agency Newsis it is Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong and ceremonial leader, Kim Yong Nam, on the visit in Beijing.

Why it matters:

If Kim Jong-un is on a state visit to China it would be the first time he has left his home country since taking power in December 2011.

The visit also comes weeks before a planned visit between the North Korean leader and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In, at a summit in late April.

A later meeting with US President Donald Trump and Kim is anticipated in May.

The talks — to discuss Pyongyang relinquishing its nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees from the US — signals a turning point in relations and diffusing of global tensions.

Background:

Previous visits by leaders of North Korea to China were shrouded in secrecy, with reports only emerging after the meetings were concluded.

China and North Korea signed a mutual defence treaty in 1961, with each country pledging to jump to the other’s defence immediately, with “military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” in the event of a war or foreign attack.

In 2017, North Korea launched 23 missiles during 16 tests to show off and hone its nuclear capability.

Yet the pariah country pledged to hold fire during talks with South Korea, in a change of stance from an uptick in launches last year.

Last year Trump was engaged in a war of words with North Korea, with a North Korean official describing Trump as a “mentally deranged person full of megalomania” on a “suicide mission”.

Trump responded that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “won’t be around much longer” if the country continues its aggressive rhetoric.