The reclusive leader of the world's last Stalinist nation, Kim Jong Il, is in Beijing for top-level talks with Chinese leaders, as Beijing pursues its uneasy role as mediator for former close ally North Korea.
Requests for economic assistance from North Korea, together with discussions on the standoff between Pyongyang and Washington over the North's nuclear weapons program were likely to dominate the discussions, which were held behind closed doors after Kim arrived in the Chinese capital in secret by special train.
While Chinese officials stopped short of confirming the hushed-up visit, they explicitly refused to deny it. "At this moment, I can only tell you that as friendly neighbors, China enjoys friendly relations with North Korea, with a tradition of high-level exchanges," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told reporters.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials said they had been informed of the visit by Beijing privately. "We have heard from the Chinese about reports of Mr. Kim's visit to Beijing," a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Beijing, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday.
The spokeswoman would not say whether the United States would ask China to serve as an intermediary to Kim, but said: "China knows our position well and this was reaffirmed during [U.S.]Vice President Cheney's recent visit."
Kim met and held talks with Chinese president Hu Jintao Monday, followed by meetings later Tuesday with former president and elder statesman Jiang Zemin, who still runs the military, South Korean media reported.
The visit comes amid efforts to restart six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. In the past, China has publicly released information on Kim's visits only after he had returned home.
Cheney upped the stakes during his visit to China last week by saying time was running out to resolve the standoff, presenting China with new intelligence that North Korea has nuclear bombs.
During his meeting with Kim, Wen was expected to offer food and energy assistance and ways of linking Pyongyang's economic development program with those being pushed by China's northeastern provinces bordering North Korea.
China has been hosting six-nation talks to resolve the nuclear standoff, which bring together the two Koreas, the United States, Russia, and Japan. A new round of talks is scheduled to take place before the end of June, and China expressed confidence Tuesday that they would go ahead as planned.
"We should have confidence that the third round of the six-party talks shall be held before the end of June," foreign ministry spokesman Kong said.