North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will send a special envoy to Russia next week in a trip expected to focus on how to boost ties at a time when both countries faces deepening diplomatic isolation.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said yesterday that Choe Ryong Hae will visit Russia soon, but did not specify the dates or the exact purpose of the trip. Russia’s foreign ministry later said Mr Choe would visit from Monday for a week.
The ministry said in a statement that Russia hopes to discuss trade and economic ties, the situation on the Korean Peninsula and in north-east Asia, and other international issues.
It said Mr Choe will visit Moscow as well as Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East.
Mr Choe, a senior Workers’ Party official, is considered as one of Mr Kim’s close associates. He visited Beijing last year as a special envoy and told Chinese president Xi Jinping that North Korea would take steps to rejoin stalled nuclear disarmament talks.
Russia and North Korea maintain cordial ties, but are not as close as they were during Soviet times, when Moscow provided significant aid and support to Pyongyang.
For North Korea, better ties with Russia could provide a much-needed economic boost because its ties with China – its long-time ally and main aid provider – are not as strong as they once were.
China was angered after North Korea ramped up tensions last year with its third nuclear test and threats of nuclear strikes against Seoul and Washington.
China has supported a tightening of UN sanctions and cracked down on North Korean banking activities.
Russia, for its part, has been seeking to bolster ties with North Korea amid a long-time effort to strengthen its role in Asia.
“Russia could be looking to increase its influence in the Far East as its relations with western nations have taken a turn for the worse due to the situation in Ukraine,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
Mr Choe’s trip also appears aimed at easing North Korea’s diplomatic isolation, said analyst Cheong Seong-chang at the Sejong Institute. He noted this week’s announcement of a free-trade agreement between rival South Korea and China.
The UN General Assembly’s human rights committee is expected to vote next week on a resolution on North Korea’s rights record drafted by the European Union and Japan.
North Korea has been pursuing improved ties with South Korea and the US in what analysts say is an attempt to attract aid, but Seoul and Washington have said it must first take steps toward nuclear disarmament.
North Korea released two American detainees last weekend, but president Barack Obama squashed speculation that might pave the way for a new round of nuclear talks, saying the US needs more than “small gestures” before reopening any high-level dialogue.