BEIJING — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Monday after a secretive overnight train trip from Pyongyang.
The South Korean press reported that Kim had lunch with Hu in Zhong Nanhai, the red-walled compound where the Chinese leaders work, and that the pair discussed North Korea's worsening economic situation and its nuclear standoff with the United States.
The Chinese government would not confirm the visit, but a heavily guarded and unmarked motorcade was seen pulling out of Beijing's main train station and heading west toward the Diaoyutai State Guest House, where the Chinese typically receive foreign dignitaries.
The unannounced visit comes on the heels of Vice President Dick Cheney's trip last week to China, South Korea and Japan, where he warned there was fresh evidence of Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities.
It is unknown when the visit by the reclusive North Korean leader was arranged, but analysts said it had probably been in the works for a while and was not necessarily timed as a counterpoint to Cheney.
China is one of Pyongyang's few allies and a critical source of food, energy and political aid. The two countries have a long relationship dating from the Korean War, when the Chinese sent troops to help North Korea fight the United States.
But the end of the Cold War and China's era of economic reform have changed that dynamic. China now wants regional stability, not hostility with the U.S. It has played a critical role in mediating six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
China is expected to use this opportunity to again ask Kim to be more flexible in dealing with the United States and to give up his nuclear ambitions.
In return, Pyongyang would most likely ask its powerful neighbor for more economic aid, learn about its free-market changes and discuss negotiation strategies in the arms dispute.
It would be too optimistic to expect any breakthrough on the nuclear issue, said Shen Dingli, an international affairs expert at Shanghai's Fudan University. North Korea has no reason to make any concessions to Washington before the November presidential elections. Still, the visit was seen as a positive step.
"More frequent high-level engagement between China and North Korea is a good thing," Shen said. "It will help increase mutual understanding. That will definitely help the next round of talks."
Kim's trip is expected to last four days, including meetings with Premier Wen Jiabao and the military chief, former President Jiang Zemin. Kim might also tour Zhongguancun, known as Beijing's Silicon Valley, and check out economic development in the northeast, closer to the North Korean border.
The last time Kim secretly entered China was three years ago. He toured Shanghai, China's economic hub, and marveled at the modern stock exchange and semiconductor plants, and contemplated similar ways to revive North Korea's economy.