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Speculation blazes in Beijing: Is North Korea’s reclusive Kim Jong Un in town?

Undated photo from North Korean News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visiting a Korean People's Army unit, in an undisclosed location, North Korea. Photo released August 2017. (Balkis Press/Abaca Press/TNS)

An armored mystery train, a flurry of activity at a Beijing guesthouse where senior North Korean officials have been known to stay, tourists barred from Tiananmen Square: Speculation flared Monday that Kim Jong Un was in the Chinese capital for consultations ahead of a pair of crucial summits — including a possible meeting in May with President Donald Trump.

There was no official word from Chinese or South Korean officials — or from North Korea, which in years past routinely announced visits to Beijing by Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, only after he had come and gone.

News media in Japan, which keeps a close eye on its nuclear-armed neighbor, first took note of an armored train crossing from North Korea into China at the Chinese border city of Dandong. Japanese broadcaster Nippon television on Monday evening showed footage of the 21-car train, with green carriages bearing a distinctive yellow stripe. And the Bloomberg news agency cited unidentified sources as saying the North Korean leader was in Beijing.

Signs swiftly materialized on the ground that a high-level visit was afoot. A large motorcade was seen entering the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, greeted by an honor guard, The Associated Press reported. The Reuters news agency said the capital’s famed Tiananmen Square was emptied of tourists — the usual prelude to a state meeting taking place in the Great Hall of the People.

Social media in Japan, South Korea and China lit up with reports of other portents: extensive train delays in and near Beijing, screens blocking the view of the station in Dandong, the border city where the armored train crossed into China, and stepped-up security starting Monday afternoon on a major Beijing thoroughfare.

If the reports are true, it would be Kim’s first known foray outside North Korea since he took power upon his father’s death in 2011. And it would signal that leadership in China, North Korea’s most important patron, wanted to have a face-to-face encounter with the untested and impetuous young leader before he sits down with South Korea’s president in April, and possibly with Trump the following month.

The North’s invitation to Trump was relayed by South Korean officials and Pyongyang has not confirmed that the talks will take place. No date or venue has yet been set.

The U.S. president caught his own advisers by surprise by announcing he was prepared to meet Kim. The unexpected move drew praise from Trump’s backers, who said it showed his bellicose style — including mocking Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and warning of “fire and fury” if the North took its provocations too far — had paid dividends.

Critics of the president, though, said agreeing to the meeting signaled naivete, bestowing enormous prestige on Kim without any concessions having been made in advance by Pyongyang. The Trump administration swiftly clarified that the aim was denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency, without confirming that the mystery visitor was Kim, said high-level talks in the Chinese capital were meant to shore up ties between Beijing and Pyongyang.

The Trump administration has reportedly sought help from China in reining in Kim, with little real success. China is by far North Korea’s most significant link to the outside world, and it has been highly critical of unilateral U.S. sanctions targeting the North that go beyond those approved late last year by the U.N. Security Council.

China watchers like author and blogger Gordon G. Chang said if Kim was indeed in Beijing, “all this talk of China losing influence in Pyongyang is incorrect analysis.”

“China has great influence, and it gets what it wants when it pulls the string,” he wrote on Twitter. “It looks as if it just pulled the string.”

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© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.