China has sent a delegation to North Korea in what analysts describe as an effort to assess the stability of Kim Jong-un's regime in the wake of his uncle's high-profile execution late last year.
The group led by Xing Haiming, the foreign ministry's deputy director of Asian affairs, arrived late last month. Ties between the two cold war allies - already strained by North Korean weapons tests - have been further complicated by Kim's purging of Jang Song-thaek.
Jang, was accused, among other things, of attempting to sell national resources to another country, which was widely believed to be China. Beijing is also said to be concerned that the purge shows weakness in Kim's grip on power.
"The visit is intended to see if Kim's regime still remains stable," said Cai Jian , a Korean affairs expert at Fudan University. "It is not intended to stress the traditional friendship of the two nations, but to get an update about North Korea."
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told reporters on Wednesday that the delegation visited the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang and met North Korean diplomats.
"They exchanged views on bilateral relations and the situation on the Korean peninsula," she said. "This is a routine exchange between the two."
Cai said that Beijing did not embrace all of Kim's policies, but wanted to ensure stability in Pyongyang and would adjust its economic policies accordingly.
The visit came as Kim's government said it was willing to return "without preconditions" to the stalled six-nation talks on its nuclear programme; officials from the two Koreas have also agreed to have talks.
"Pyongyang has not taken provocative moves recently and China believes it is time to start working on restoring ties with North Korea," said Wang Sheng , an international relations professor at Jilin University. "China is also making preparations for the six-nation nuclear talks."
Wang said Sino-North Korean ties might face further strain due to a military drill by the United States and South Korea scheduled for this month, which may prompt more sabre-rattling from Pyongyang.