North Korean eminence grise Jang Song-taek, the uncle of leader Kim Jong-un, was given the red carpet treatment on a visit to China at the head of a large entourage. His visit recalled earlier trips by former leader Kim Jong-il in many aspects of protocol.
Jang's entourage reportedly consists of 25 to 30 members. About a dozen arrived as an advance party last weekend and 15 others arrived with Jang on Monday.
A Unification Ministry official here commented, "I've never heard of an advance party being sent ahead of an overseas trip by any senior North Korean official other than Kim Jong-il."
China's official Xinhua and the North's state-run KCNA news agencies carried photos of a session of a joint guidance committee on Tuesday that show Jang and Chinese Ambassador to Pyongyang Liu Hongcai together. China's ambassadors to North Korea have customarily returned to their country a few days before former leader Kim Jong-il's state visits, in order to greet him as he crossed the border and to accompany him during his visit.
A South Korean government official speculated that Liu's presence shows China providing Jang with protocol arrangements usually reserved for foreign heads of state.
After attending a meeting about faltering joint development projects in the North's Hwanggumpyong Island and Rajin-Sonbong special economic zones on Tuesday morning, Jang traveled to Changchun, the capital city of Jilin Province. He is expected to tour the province for two days and meet provincial party secretary Sun Zhengcai.
Jang will also reportedly travel to the boomtown of Shenyang in Liaoning Province, where he will meet provincial party secretary Wang Min. During each of his four visits to China since May 2010, Kim Jong-il also toured the three northeastern Chinese provinces.
Jang was put up overnight at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on Monday, which also tends to be an honor reserved for foreign heads of state, according to an informed observer.