Chinese President Hu Jintao offered his condolences Tuesday on the death of Kim Jong Il as the government hinted at an early invitation for a visit by his son and successor.
Surrounded by scores of security officers, Hu made an early morning trip to North Korea's sprawling embassy in Beijing's leafy Jianguomenwai diplomatic district, where the national flag was flying at half-staff. The official Xinhua News Agency reported the visit but offered no other details.
That followed a meeting Monday evening between the embassy's second-highest-ranking official and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who called Kim a "close friend" who would be remembered forever by the Chinese people. The ruling Communist Party's Central Committee, China's top policy-setting body, hailed Kim's son and successor Kim Jong Un on Monday as North Korea's new leader.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin left the door open for an invitation to the younger Kim, noting that China maintains high-level exchanges with North Korea.
"We would welcome North Korea's leaders to visit China at their convenience," Liu told reporters at Tuesday's daily briefing. The words Liu used could refer to one leader or more than one leader.
China has been expected to push for an early visit by the younger Kim to cement ties with the new leadership, in contrast to the six-year gap between his father's rise to power and his first trip to Beijing. The younger Kim is believed to have already visited China at least once as part of his father's retinue.
In the Chinese border city of Dandong, visitors delivered flower arrangements Tuesday to the customs office but all appeared normal otherwise. Tourist boats on the Yalu River cruised along the North Korean bank and trucks rumbled across the rickety bridge connecting the sides.
Dandong is the main crossing point for travelers and goods between the countries and a nearby island was designated earlier this year as the site of an experimental cross-border joint economic development zone.
China's response to Kim's death highlights the government's growing emphasis on North Korean ties despite its annoyance at the North's refusal to reform its listless economy and its recurring provocative acts against South Korea that whip up tensions in the region.
Beijing sees North Korea as a strategic bulwark against a democratic South Korea allied with the U.S. In recent years it has become North Korea's indispensable diplomatic protector and economic partner, accounting for the bulk of its trade, much of its investment and all of its oil. In recent years, Kim was a frequent visitor to China, coming twice this year alone, most recently in August when he stopped off while returning home from Russia.
Chinese experts say they don't anticipate any change in relations but that Beijing will likely beef up security to guard against disorder that could potentially send millions of impoverished, starving refugees across their long border.
Above all, China wants to preserve the North Korean regime and ensure stability on the Korean peninsula, while hoping also for economic reforms that will make the North less reliant on Chinese help.