North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was expected to meet Tuesday with China's president at the start of a visit to Beijing believed to be an effort to co-ordinate with his only major ally ahead of a possible second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Speculation had grown on Monday that Kim was possibly making his way to China after South Korea's Yonhap news reported that a North Korean train had been seen crossing the border.
Hanoi has told North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho during his official visit in late November that it wishes to host the summit.
During his visit this week, which ends on Thursday, Kim will be looking for assurances that if talks with the United States fail, it will still have support from China, says Shi Yinhong, a political science professor at Beijing's Renmin University.
A year ago marked unprecedented progress in denuclearization talks, with Kim holding summits with Trump, Xi, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
On the other hand, Bloomberg suggested Kim might be "building closer ties with China" after a few years of tension because he wants an alternative to further denuclearization talks with the United States.
The visit, confirmed by North Korean and Chinese state media, will likely lead to Kim's fourth summit with Xi in the previous year and comes amid plans for a second summit with Trump aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
"As to in what form this is reflected, I don't think there's a need to read too much into it", Lu said, adding that U.S. trade talks and Kim's visit were unrelated.
The trip marked a break with past practice in that it was announced in advance of Kim's arrival, a possible sign of growing confidence on the part of North Korea and China, the North's most important trading partner and a key buffer against pressure from Washington.
Kim's four-day visit comes after he expressed frustration in his annual New Year's address over the lack of progress in negotiations with Washington since his unprecedented summit with Trump in Singapore seven months ago. China clearly anticipates receiving a privileged stake in North Korea, Inc. when it opens for business after sanctions are eased, an outcome USA policymakers will doubtless see as preferable to all-out war on the Korean Peninsula or a nuclear holocaust.
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"China has always supported North Korea and the U.S.to hold talks and to reach a positive outcome", Lu said. "US and North Korean officials are believed to have met in Vietnam to discuss the location of a second summit", the Associated Press reports.
Officials from USA and China are meeting in Beijing this week to negotiate an end to the trade war that has led to hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs over the past year.
The visit coincides with what South Korean officials say is Kim's 35th birthday on Tuesday.
The most sensational was his June 2018 summit in Singapore with President Donald Trump.
Likewise, Noh Kyu-duk, the spokesman of the South Korean Foreign Ministry, said Tuesday, "Our government is continuously working to push for inter-Korean, North-China and North-U.S. exchanges and denuclearization negotiations to happen in a mutual, virtuous cycle".
Washington is pressing North Korea to offer up a detailed accounting of its nuclear arsenal, while the North says it has already done enough and it's time for the U.S.to ease the harsh global sanctions that hold back the North Korean economy.
Trump has been asking Xi to prevail on the North Korean leader to give up nuclear programme.
"The Chinese have been very clear to us that these are separate issues", Pompeo said.
Dr Shin Chang-hoon, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy, said Mr Kim "shows his inclination towards China whenever a significant decision is awaiting".