There is widespread speculation that a senior North Korean official who made a surprise day-long visit to Beijing was Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.
Japanese media outlets first reported that a high-profile figure had arrived via a North Korean diplomatic train and was met with tight security.
The conservative South Korea Chosun Ilbo newspaper, citing an unnamed senior intelligence official, said the delegation had included Kim and that he had since left to return to North Korea.
South Korea’s left-leaning press Hankyoreh also reported Kim had traveled to Beijing for meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday afternoon before leaving for a “third location” on Tuesday. It did not cite specific sources.
The Hankyoreh did not specify where the “third location” was but said it could be in China.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said Kim was on the train that left Beijing, citing two anonymous sources.
South Korea said it was closely watching events in Beijing, where a foreign ministry spokeswoman deflected a question on whether Kim, his sister or some other senior North Korean was visiting. South Korea’s spy agency declined to confirm the report.
“At present I have no understanding of the situation you mention. If there is news we will release it,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular daily briefing.
Diplomatic sources in Beijing said a senior North Korean official was in town, but did not know exactly who.
Bloomberg, citing three unidentified sources, reported late on Monday that Kim was in Beijing in what would be his first known trip outside North Korea since taking power in 2011.
The unconfirmed visit came ahead of planned summit meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump.
“The presidential Blue House is watching things in Beijing very closely, while keeping all possibilities open,” said the senior official in Seoul, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Improving ties between North Korea, which is pursuing nuclear and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and China would be a positive sign before the planned summits, he said.
A Reuters reporter saw a convoy leave Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guest House, where senior foreign leaders often stay, and drive north on Tuesday morning. It was unclear where the convoy was headed.
Later, a Reuters journalist saw what was believed to be the delegation’s train pulling out of a Beijing station. The group was reported to have arrived in China on Sunday after crossing from North Korea in the border city of Dandong.
A senior U.S. official who follows North Korea closely said the available evidence suggested that Kim had traveled to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, but stressed that has not been confirmed.
Underscoring the mystery, one senior Beijing-based diplomatic source told Reuters simply: “We just don’t know.”
One source with ties to China’s leadership said it was possible Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was in town. She visited South Korea for the Winter Olympics last month, paving the way for a summit between the two Koreas.
South Korean news agency Newsis reported that Kim Yo Jong and the North’s ceremonial leader, Kim Yong Nam, were visiting Beijing, citing an unidentified North Korea-related source in Beijing.
A train believed to be carrying a senior North Korean delegation leaves the Beijing Railway Station in Beijing, China March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee
The pair visited South Korean President Moon Jae-in at his office in Seoul during the Winter Olympics in February.
The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was unlikely Kim Jong Un would have sent his sister on such an important mission, unlike her ceremonial visit to South Korea for the Olympics.
On the contrary, the official said, a summit with Xi would underscore Kim’s standing as a world leader.
Xi and Kim Jong Un had reasons to meet in advance of Kim’s meetings with Moon and possibly Trump, the U.S. official said.
“Xi has met Trump, and in many respects learned how to deal with him better than some people here do,” the official said.