There is a strong possibility that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in Beijing, an official with deep knowledge of North Korea told CNN.
The visit comes weeks before Kim’s planned summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a potential meeting with US President Donald Trump.
Heavy security in Beijing and the presence of what appears to be a train that belongs to North Korea’s ruling Kim family had been fueling speculation that Kim, or another high-level representative from Pyongyang, was in the Chinese capital for talks.
A large security presence remains outside the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where North Korean leaders have previously stayed. Police ordered a CNN crew to leave the area just minutes after they arrived early Tuesday morning.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Monday it was “not aware of the situation” when asked whether a North Korean official had arrived in the country.
Traffic in parts of the city was brought to a standstill, with roads closed near Diaoyutai in western Beijing and south of Tiananmen Square.
The guesthouse was commonly used as a venue for six-party talks, the George W. Bush-era negotiations that ultimately failed to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Parts of the Temple of Heaven, a complex founded in the 15th Century that’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was closed at about 10 a.m. when a motorcade entered the premises, staff and tourists said.
Images of an old-style green train car that pulled into Beijing began circulating online Monday evening local time, prompting speculation that the North Korean leader or another high-level representative from Pyongyang could be in the Chinese capital.
The train car is said to resemble one that has transported North Korea’s leaders on foreign trips.
“This caught us all by surprise,” said Curtis Melvin, an analyst at Johns Hopkins University’s US-Korea Institute.
Melvin runs the website North Korea Economy Watch, which tracks the hermit state’s economy and development, using satellite imagery and other tools.
“As far as I am aware, this train has not traveled to China since Kim Jong Un took over,” Melvin told CNN in an email.
The news of the proposed Trump-Kim summit broke after a high-ranking South Korean delegation traveled to Pyongyang and met with the North Korean leader.
The source with deep knowledge of North Korea told CNN envoys from Seoul implored Kim to meet with Trump. Kim verbally agreed, but didn’t think it would be publicized or happen so soon, and was even more surprised that the United States and South Korea made a big announcement.
Kim has not met any foreign heads of state since succeeding his father as North Korean leader in late 2011. Relations with China, a traditional ally, have been strained after Kim purged several top-ranking officials close to Beijing, including his uncle, Jang Song Thaek.
China accounts for nearly 90% of North Korea’s imports and has come under US pressure to use its trade relationship to influence Pyongyang. China has voted in favor of multiple rounds of United Nations sanctions passed last year.
The Kim family car
Michael Madden, an expert in North Korean leadership, told CNN that only Kim family members would likely travel by that particular train car.
“Numerous other senior officials could and would have taken a private plane, possibly departing without any fanfare in Pyongyang and arranging to establish an unobtrusive arrival with the Chinese authorities,” Madden said.
“I think we are left either with the possibility of it being Kim Jong Un or Kim Yo Jong,” he said, referring to Kim’s sister, the head of the Korean Workers’ Party’s Propaganda and Agitation department.
Kim Yo Jong last left North Korea to attend the Winter Games in Pyeongchang in February, when she twice shook hands with South Korea’s Moon, and passed him a personal invitation to visit Pyongyang.
The approach led to plans for a summit between Moon and Kim, expected to be held in late April. Kim Jong Un later invited Trump to meet, an invitation that was unexpectedly accepted.
The South Korean government also said it couldn’t confirm whether the North Korean leader was in Beijing. If he is, Moon’s administration said it would be positive sign that shows ties between Pyongyang and Beijing are improving, a senior official with the Blue House — South Korea’s equivalent of the White House — told reporters.
Raj Shah, a spokesman for the White House, said he could not confirm the reports of Kim visiting Beijing when asked about them Monday. “We don’t know if they’re necessarily true,” he said.
He added that the White House was “looking forward to a potential summit some months in advance.” The Trump administration previously said they would attempt to arrange the meeting with Kim by the end of May.
Both Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, the current leader’s father and grandfather respectively, traveled by heavily armored train when they visited their allies in China and Russia.
The most recent trip was in August 2011, months before Kim Jong Il’s death, when he visited Moscow to meet with then President Dmitry Medvedev.
According to Konstantin Pulikovsky, a former Russian diplomat who drew on internal classified memos from Kim’s visit to Russia in 2001, the train was staffed by “beautiful lady conductors” and live lobsters were shipped to stops along the route, along with cases of Bordeaux and Burgundy red wines.
During dinners that stretched for four hours or more, guests and conductors sang Russian and Korean propaganda songs, Pulikovsky wrote in his memoirs.
South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported in 2009 that the train, when used for traveling around North Korea, is flanked by two other trains, one handling reconnaissance and the other security.
“Kim’s train is armored and also contains conference rooms, an audience chamber and bedrooms. Satellite phone connections and flat screen TVs have been installed so that the North Korean leader can be briefed and issue orders,” the paper said.