BEIJING — Premier Wen Jiabao and other top Chinese leaders paid their respects Wednesday over the death of North Korea's Kim Jong Il, a further sign of how China is working to reassure Pyongyang of the strength of ties and retain its influence amid an uncertain leadership transition.
Wen and four other members of the ruling Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee made a morning visit to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing to offer their condolences, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
President Hu Jintao and the other three members of the supreme ruling body visited Tuesday.
China has moved rapidly to reaffirm unique, deep-seated ties and assure the North of its continuing support as Pyongyang's most important ally and biggest source of food and fuel aid.
China has called Kim a "close friend" and hailed his son and successor Kim Jong Un as the North's new leader.
In the Chinese border city of Dandong, there was no sign that North Korea was shutting down, with trucks and tourist busses crossing the Yalu River bridge and tourists aboard pleasure boats cruising along the North Korean bank.
On Tuesday, 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 when relations drifted. The younger Kim is believed to have already visited China at least once as part of his father's retinue.
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.