Just as unexpectedly as his last three trips to Beijing, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's armoured olive green train rolled into a railway station in the Chinese capital at 10.55am yesterday with little fanfare save for the motorcade that brought him to the Diaoyutai State Guest House.
The surprise visit, widely seen to be yet another counsel-seeking mission by Mr Kim in preparation for his anticipated second meeting with United States President Donald Trump, comes as US trade representatives are in town for talks aimed at resolving a trade dispute between the two economic giants that has rattled global markets for months.
In an unusual move, North Korean state media announced Mr Kim's visit yesterday morning before he, his wife and other senior officials even arrived in Beijing. Typically, Pyongyang makes public its leader's overseas trips only after he has returned home.
Yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang played down the significance of the visit, saying it was part of maintaining good bilateral relations between North Korea and China, although he added that China supports continued talks between North Korea and the US.
"There will no doubt be an exchange of in-depth views on bilateral ties and regional and international issues of common concern," he said.
While he did not give away Mr Kim's itinerary, South Korea's Yonhap news agency cited sources as saying that the North Korean leader and Chinese President Xi Jinping met yesterday for an hour and discussed aligning their positions ahead of a likely second summit between Mr Kim and Mr Trump.
South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, also reportedly told lawmakers in a closed-door briefing that the two leaders may discuss a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice. After the meeting, Mr Xi and his wife were believed to have hosted a welcome dinner for Mr Kim and his wife at the Great Hall of the People, reported Yonhap, which also said the North Korean leader was expected to visit industrial facilities in the north-eastern port city of Tianjin during his three-day visit.
South Korea yesterday welcomed Mr Kim's trip to China with a statement from the Blue House, the presidential palace, saying it will be a "stepping stone towards a second North-US summit".
The latest visit came at the invitation of President Xi and coincided with what was believed to be Mr Kim's 35th birthday yesterday. The meeting with Mr Xi marked the fourth time Mr Kim has met the Chinese leader in less than a year and has fuelled talk that another face-to-face encounter with Mr Trump is imminent.
Mr Kim had just a week ago indicated his willingness to sit down with the US leader again, although he also warned of taking a "new path" if the US does not ease sanctions.
Last year, he called on the Chinese President ahead of historic meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the demilitarised zone on their joint border and Mr Trump in Singapore, which resulted in a promise by Mr Kim to work towards denuclearisation.
He went to Beijing again after the Singapore summit to brief Mr Xi and discuss economic cooperation. China, which is North Korea's most important ally, has been providing a lifeline to the isolated nation amid tough United Nations sanctions that have crippled its economy.
Dr Shin Chang-hoon, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy, said Mr Kim "shows his inclination towards China whenever a significant decision is awaiting". But Dr Shin also said that Mr Xi may not be as supportive this time around, given China's delicate position in the trade negotiations with the US.
• Additional reporting by Chang May Choon in Seoul