BEIJING - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reportedly visited a pharmaceutical factory in China on Wednesday (Jan 9) as he seeks economic support from his key ally along with diplomatic backing before his expected summit with Donald Trump.
Kim arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for a fourth visit to his country's sole major diplomatic friend, a trip seen as a strategy session ahead of his possible second meeting with the US president on Pyongyang's nuclear programme.
The unannounced trip has been largely shrouded in secrecy. Beyond confirming his presence in Beijing, there has been no detail provided from either the North Korean or Chinese side on his schedule.
The North Korean leader met Chinese President Xi Jinping for one hour on Tuesday - believed to be Kim's birthday - and the two later dined with their wives at Beijing's Great Hall of the People, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
The meeting focused on Kim's expected meeting with Trump, according to Yonhap.
But Chinese officials also likely want to impress on Kim - who has so far pursued only limited reforms to his statist economy - the benefits the giant Communist country has enjoyed in its transformation from impoverished nation to economic powerhouse.
A motorcade left Beijing's Diaoyutai guest house for foreign dignitaries early Wednesday, with a high police presence and traffic blocked for the convoy.
Yonhap reported that Kim toured a factory operated by medicine firm Tong Ren Tang for about half an hour in an economic zone in the Chinese capital.
"For North Korea itself, 2019 is his strategic turning point. If he wants to shift his focus to the development of the economy, he needs China's co-operation," said Lu Chao, a North Korea expert at China's Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences.
"China will also introduce some successful experiences to Kim to help North Korea achieve economic transformation and realise the denuclearisation of the peninsula as soon as possible," Lu told AFP.
Hua Po, a Beijing-based political commentator, said changes in the economic model will affect politics, "which poses new challenges to his control over the country."
"For this point, he must ask for advice from China."
The motorcade likely carrying Kim was later seen leaving Zhongnanhai, China's central leadership compound next to Beijing's Forbidden City.
Kim wraps up his visit - his longest trip to China - on Thursday.
In a New Year speech, Kim focused on North Korea's moribund economy, saying that improving people's lives was his top priority and tackling energy shortages was an urgent task.
But his looming summit with Trump is a pressing issue. In his speech, he warned that Pyongyang may change its approach to nuclear talks if Washington persists with sanctions.
Relations between China and North Korea had deteriorated in recent years over Pyongyang's nuclear activities, but Kim has made sure to keep Xi informed about his dealings with the United States and South Korea and ties appear to have warmed.
"In order to resist the high pressure of the US, he must communicate with Xi in advance to see what steps he can take to deal with Trump," Hua said.
"Kim needs the support of Xi so as to ask the US to make substantial steps, such as providing assistance to North Korea and normalising relations with North Korea," Hua said.
Kim chose China for his maiden official trip abroad last year before holding meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump.
Trump said Sunday that the United States and North Korea are negotiating the location of their next summit.
Discussions between the US and North Korea over Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal have stalled since Kim and Trump's high-profile summit in Singapore in June where they issued a vaguely worded declaration about denuclearisation.
The United States insists that United Nations sanctions must remain in place until North Korea gives up its weapons, while Pyongyang wants them immediately eased. China also wants the sanctions to be relaxed.
The visit coincides with negotiations between US and Chinese officials in Beijing to resolve a bruising trade war between the world's two biggest economies.
Some analysts say China could use its co-operation on the North Korean issue as a bargaining chip in the US trade talks.
But Hua said Kim's visit would have a "limited" effect on the trade negotiations.
"The Sino-US trade negotiations are a matter between China and the US. The weight of North Korea is limited and cannot play a decisive role," he said.