North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has arrived in Beijing by train for an unannounced visit, at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
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.
By inviting Kim to visit China on January 8, believed to be his birthday, Xi has successfully staged an amicable relationship with Kim, foreign affairs experts say.
After years of cool relations following Kim's assumption of power 2011, ties have improved remarkably over the past year as Xi seeks to maintain his influence in the region.
The United States, meanwhile, is expected to carefully watch whether North Korea's negotiating strategy will change after Kim's four-day visit to China from Monday, amid speculation that the U.S. and North Korean leaders will meet again early this year.
The trip marked a further break with past practice in that it was announced in advance of Mr Kim's arrival, a possible sign of growing confidence on the part of North Korea and China, Pyongyang's most important trading partner and a key buffer against pressure from Washington.
In a New Year's Day speech, Kim said he was ready to meet with Trump anytime, but he warned that if Washington persisted with sanctions, his country might be compelled to "find a new way for defending" its sovereignty and interests. The timing of the visit - as USA and Chinese officials work to hash out a trade deal - has some wondering whether Beijing is trying its hand at playing the so-called North Korea card, to use the issue as leverage.
Culminating in late 2017, Pyongyang carried out six nuclear tests and launched rockets capable of reaching the entire U.S. mainland, but has now carried out no such tests for more than a year.
"With Chinese and United States officials meeting to discuss how to end the growing trade war between the two superpowers, it shows Beijing clearly has a North Korea card to play if it sees fit".
The trip is at Xi's invitation and set to run until Thursday, according to KCNA and China's official Xinhua news agency.
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His visit to Beijing, which is stated to be closest ally of Pyongyang, comes at a time when China itself is locked in a trade war with the USA over Trump's demand to reduce the United States dollars 375 billion trade deficit with the US. He has since met Xi in China two more times, in May and June before and after his historic summit with U.S. 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".
The only day North Korea has acknowledged Mr Kim's birthday was in 2014, when visiting basketball star Dennis Rodman sang "Happy Birthday" to him after an exhibition match in Pyongyang.
Washington is pressing the North to offer up a detailed accounting of its nuclear arsenal, while Pyongyang says it has already done enough and it is time for the United States to ease harsh global sanctions that hold back the North Korean economy.
The US president said last week he had received a "great letter" from the North Korean leader but declined to reveal its contents.
"China has always supported both sides to continue to hold talks and to reach a positive outcome", Lu said.
Kim's latest visit coincided with the second day of the crucial trade talks between the U.S. and Chinese officials here.
"Their behaviour has demonstrated that as well and we appreciate that", Pompeo said.
Experts say this trip to Beijing, Pyongyang's sole major ally and its top economic lifeline as it continues to fend off crippling sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs, will give the Chinese and North Korean sides a fresh chance to coordinate strategy ahead of the planned second Trump summit.