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(LEAD) Ranking N.K. official apparently visiting China: report

All Headlines 23:06 March 26, 2018

(ATTN: REWRITES dateline, lead; ADDS more details throughout)

BEIJING/SEOUL, March 26 (Yonhap) -- A high-ranking North Korean official appears to be visiting China, a Japanese report said Monday, ahead of summits with South Korea and the United States.

An unidentified official is visiting China with an aim at improving long-stalled ties with Beijing, Kyodo News reported, citing sources. It has yet to be confirmed whether the figure is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, it added.

Relations between the North and Beijing have been strained over North Korea's pursuit of its nuclear and missile programs. China, the North's economic benefactor, has joined international sanctions on Pyongyang.

The report said that a special train that may have carried the official passed through the Chinese border city of Dandong on Sunday.

South Korean online media outlet Daily NK said that a screen had been placed at a train station in Dandong to prevent people from seeing a train that had passed over a bridge linking the Chinese city and North Korea's Sinuiju.

Kyodo News said that a vehicle with a diplomatic license plate of the North Korean Embassy was spotted Monday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing amid tight security.

Hua Chunying, spokeswoman at China's foreign ministry, told a press briefing that she has no information about the situation. North Korea's state media had no reports on it.

What appeared to be a trip by a senior North Korean official came at a critical diplomatic juncture, as the North's leader is set to hold summits with his counterparts from South Korea and the U.S.

Kim Jong-un plans to hold a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April. U.S. President Donald Trump has also agreed to meet with Kim by the end of May.

The North's leader has yet to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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