Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao began a rare top-level visit to North Korea on Sunday, with his meetings expected to focus on the poor and isolated nation's nuclear programme.
Premier Wen's visit coincides with the 60th anniversary of formal ties between the two communist neighbours. His three days there are likely to feature shows of neighbourly goodwill -- not the hard-nosed negotiations over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons that preoccupy other regional powers.
But analysts said China, the closest North Korea has to an ally, would not send such a senior visitor unless it had some assurance from Pyongyang that could ease tensions over its nuclear weapons activities, following a second nuclear test and its claims to have made progress in enriching uranium.
"This visit will be mostly focused on bolstering bilateral relations and the 60th anniversary, but the nuclear issue is sure to come up," said Zhu Feng, a professor of international security at Peking University.
"The key question will be whether North Korea goes beyond its recent statements and directly expresses willingness to return to the six-party (nuclear disarmament) talks," said Zhu. "That would be China's goal for this visit,."
Chinese officials have given few details about the itinerary of Wen's three-day visit, but it is likely to feature a meeting with North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-il.
The large retinue of senior Chinese officials travelling with Wen gave some idea of his broad economic and political agenda.
According to the Xinhua news agency on Sunday, they included Commerce Minister Chen Deming, National Development and Reform Commission chief Zhang Ping, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, and a senior military officer, Liu Zhenqi.
The six-party talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States ground to a halt about a year ago, with Pyongyang saying it will boycott the sessions aimed at curtailing its nuclear weapons ambitions in return for aid.
China, hosting the talks, has said they remain the most effective forum for dealing with the nuclear dispute.
North Korea in recent months has reached out to the international community after being hit with U.N. sanctions for the nuclear test in May.
Last month, Kim Jong-il told a visiting envoy from China that he would work to end his state's nuclear arms programme through multilateral talks.
But Beijing also wants to shore up its sometimes-brittle bilateral relationship with the North.
China's 1,416-km (880-mile) border with North Korea includes stretches of rivers that freeze over in winter, and in recent years many North Korean refugees have crossed over.
If the North falls into turmoil, Beijing fears that flow could become a torrent into an already poor part of China.
"China won't be offering unconditional economic support to North Korea," said Zhu, the professor. "It will be linked, indirectly at least, to progress on the nuclear issue."