BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the North Korean embassy in Beijing on Tuesday to "express condolences" for the death of Kim Jong-il, in a sign of Beijing's determination to protect its ties with Pyongyang as it enters an uncertain transition.
Hu's visit, reported by the official Xinhua news agency, followed a message from China's central leadership on Monday that gave Beijing's support for isolated North Korea and expressed confidence in Kim Jong-un -- Kim Jong-il's young and little-known successor.
The brief Xinhua report did not say what Hu said during his embassy visit. But his gesture -- unusual for China's highest ranked leader -- was enough to highlight Beijing's effort to shore up support for Pyongyang under the younger Kim.
"We feel incomparably anguished, and offer our deepest condolences to the entire North Korean people," China's top leaders said in a collective statement read out on state television's main evening news on Monday.
"We are sure that the North Korean people will abide by Comrade Kim Jong-il's will and unify around the Korean Workers' Party, and under the leadership of Comrade Kim Jong-un turn their anguish into strength," it added.
Impoverished and squeezed by international sanctions for conducting a series of nuclear and missile tests since 2006, North Korea has increasingly turned to Beijing for help to fill the gap left by the drying up of economic assistance from South Korea and the United States.
In turn, China has made clear that it wants to shore up North Korea as a buffer protecting its regional influence from the United States and its allies.
Over the 18 months before his death, Kim visited China four times, although in the past he rarely travelled abroad.
During Kim's China visit in May, the two sides vowed that their alliance, "sealed in blood," would pass on to their successors.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills)