North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set off by train for Vietnam on Saturday, for his second summit with US President Donald Trump next week, media reported, and hours later, two witnesses saw a train crossing into China from North Korea.
A South Korean diplomat involved in the talks said Kim has agreed to allow U.S. inspectors into the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, which has processed plutonium and uranium for Pyongyang's nukes.
Kim has met Chinese President Xi Jinping four times in the past year, briefing his country's sole major ally before and after his historic summits with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
In rare, revealing coverage of Kim's travel, the North's Rodong Sinmun newspaper featured photographs of him getting a red-carpet send-off on Saturday afternoon and waving from a train door while holding a cigarette.
The summit is scheduled for February 27-28 in Hanoi and follows the leaders' first, historic face-to-face meeting last June in Singapore.
If Kim travels all the way to Vietnam by train he could take at least 2-1/2 days to make the journey of thousands of kilometres through China.
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Kim Jong Un departing Pyongyang Station on Feb 23, 2019, for the second North Korea-US summit meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Rail travel is a family tradition that was started by Kim's grandfather, the North's founder Kim Il Sung, who traveled to Eastern Europe for his longest train ride in 1984.
Earlier, Russia's Tass news agency reported from Pyongyang that Kim's train departed for Hanoi at around 5 p.m Saturday.
Vietnamese police have stepped up security around the border station ahead of Kim's arrival.
But their vaguely worded agreement has produced few results and U.S. Democratic senators and U.S. security officials have warned Trump against cutting a deal that would do little to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
His train is expected to stop at the Vietnamese border station of Dong Dang, where he will disembark and drive 170 km (105 miles) to Hanoi by auto, the sources said.
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Soldiers were deployed to Dong Dang station and along the road to the capital, according to Agence France-Presse reporters at the scene.
Jeong Young-tae of the Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul said the safest way to travel would be to take a plane provided by Beijing.
American intelligence officials have said they believe Kim is unlikely to ever relinquish all of his nuclear arsenal, and United Nations monitors have reported that in recent months North Korea had taken steps to hide, disperse and protect its weapons.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told the U.S. secretary of state he did not want his children to live with the burden of nuclear weapons, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer involved in high-level diplomacy over the North's weapons was quoted as saying on Saturday. The vehicle resembles the train used by Kim Jong Un for a visit to Beijing last month.
It is not known if he will travel by train from Pyongyang via China or fly to a nearby Chinese city.
The journey from China's frozen northern border to subtropical Vietnam presents a logistical headache and complex security challenges.
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But China may view the hassle as a necessary cost to get Kim to the summit.