North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is heading to China for a four-day visit at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to state media in both countries.
The Korean Central News Agency said on Tuesday that Kim departed on Monday afternoon on a private train accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju and top North Korean officials.
During his stay in China, North Korea‘s key diplomatic ally and main source of trade and aid, Kim is expected to hold his fourth summit with Xi.
The visit comes a week after Kim warned that North Korea may seek alternative course if the United States maintains sanctions and pressure on his country, even as he renewed his commitment to denuclearisation following his landmark summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June last year.
It also coincided with what South Korean officials say is Kim’s 35th birthday on January 8.
“He was warmly seen off by leading officials of the Party, government and armed forces organs at the railway station,” KCNA said in its report.
Last year, Kim travelled to China three times to meet with Xi before and after meeting Trump as well as summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The latest trip comes after US and North Korean officials are believed to have met in Vietnam to discuss the location of a second summit between Kim and Trump aimed at denuclearising the Korean peninsula,
At the Singapore summit, the two leaders signed a vaguely-worded pledge on denuclearisation, but progress has since stalled with Pyongyang and Washington arguing over their agreement’s interpretation.
Christopher Hill, a former US ambassador to South Korea, said Kim’s visit to China may be Beijing’s way of ensuring it remains a player in any future developments with Washington.
“With the Trump administration, the [US’s] relationship with China has really gone very sour , and moreover as the Trump administration ramped up its North Korean contacts they did that without an effort to bring China in – and China is a very substantial country with 1.4 billion people and they really don’t want to be ignored,” he told Al Jazeera.
“So I think this is China’s effort to try and be part of this process, and the key question, of course, is what is their message to the North Koreans?” Hill added.
“Are the Chinese going to encourage the North Koreans to do more? Or is North Korea going to continue a policy which essentially involves not testing any weapons during this time but hasn’t really involved much else.”
Al Jazeera and news agencies