North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's uncle - the man seen as the power behind the young and untested dictator - is in Beijing, in the latest signal the reclusive state is looking seriously at ways to revive its broken economy.
The official KCNA news agency said Jang Song-thaek was visiting the North's only major ally to discuss setting up joint commercial projects, a move that Beijing appears to support.
Jang, 66, may meet President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao before returning to Pyongyang on August 18, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing unidentified diplomatic officials in Beijing. He will also visit Liaoning and Jilin provinces, which share borders with North Korea, China Daily reported.
Jang is the most senior North Korean to visit China since Kim Jong-un took power in December, following his father's death. Kim has listed economic development as the country's top policy agenda as the nation seeks to overcome chronic food shortages.
The two sides will "speed up infrastructure construction" to attract more companies to invest, according to a statement from China's Commerce Ministry. China should support the expansion of economic and trade co-operation with North Korea, vice commerce minister Chen Jian wrote in yesterday's People's Daily.
In Washington, a senior US official said Jang's visit, which follows a trip to North Korea earlier this month by a senior Chinese Communist Party official, could be a prelude to a mission by new leader Kim to Beijing.
"It's also part of refurbishing the relationship, which was a bit dented" by North Korea's decision to go ahead with a rocket launch in April despite warnings from China, the official said. North Korea said it failed in its mission to put a satellite in orbit.
A source with ties to both Pyongyang and Beijing said last month that the North was gearing up to experiment with agricultural and economic reforms after Kim and his powerful uncle purged the country's top general for opposing such change.
KCNA said the meeting was to discuss joint economic projects in Rason on the North's east coast, and in Hwanggumphyong, an area on the border between the two countries that is yet to be developed.
The two countries have planned to develop a new industrial district on the Yalu River that runs along their border, but the construction of a new bridge there has been suspended.
South Korea is the only other partner in commercial development in the North, with an industrial park just north of their heavily fortified border that is the site of factories where about 120 South Korean firms use cheap local labour to make goods.
North Korea already relies heavily on China, but its leadership has in the past proven deeply suspicious of change, seeing it as a threat to its control over the country.
"There is an element of explaining to China the reforms… that Kim Jong-un has been planning," said Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg