North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is sending a special envoy to Russia next week in an apparent attempt to ease diplomatic isolation.
In a short dispatch, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency announced Friday that Choe Ryong Hae, a secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, will visit Russia soon. In an official statement, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Choe would visit Russia November 17-24.
During the week-long visit, the two sides are expected to discuss bilateral issues, including “increasing the level of political dialogue and ways to boost trade and economic cooperation,” said the statement.
Choe is expected to travel to Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, the statement added.
The visit comes as Pyongyang is experiencing a difficult relationship with its most important ally, Beijing. Experts believe Chinese leaders’ patience with its longtime ally has worn thin since Pyongyang’s third nuclear test early last year. Some say the high profile execution of Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle, who had close ties to Beijing, also prompted Chinese leaders to question the direction of the North Korean leadership.
Pyongyang is also facing mounting pressure from the international community over its human rights violations.
Choe’s mission as Kim’s special envoy is not unprecedented. In May 2013, Choe visited Beijing and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a move seen as a fence-mending mission by Pyongyang.
Analysts in Seoul see Choe’s visit to Russia as Pyongyang’s attempt to reach out to Moscow.
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at South Korea’s Dongguk University, said there is a high chance for Choe to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Kim’s special envoy.
“I would say that would lead to indirect summit talks between North Korea and Russia on ways to avoid the intensifying U.N.-led pressure on Pyongyang,” Kim said in a telephone interview with VOA.
Others say Choe’s visit could pave the way for Kim Jong Un’s visit to Russia next year.
“It’s highly likely that Kim Jong Un will visit Russia early next year, given the history of North Korean leadership,” said Cha Doo-hyun, former Director of Seoul-based Korea Foundation.
Cha explained it took three years after the death of his father for Kim Jong Un’s late father Kim Jong Il to form his own leadership style and the young Kim might follow his father’s footsteps.
Some analysts believe Pyongyang might be trying to ease economic dependence on Beijing by expanding economic ties with Moscow.
Recently, the two countries struck a deal that calls for Russia to overhaul North Korea’s railway network in return for access to the North’s mineral resources.
Georgy Toloraya, Director of Korean Programs at the Institute of Economy at the Russian Academy of Science, said the deal offers Pyongyang an opportunity to avoid its economic overdependence on Beijing.
“North Koreans want any assistance they can get and they think their political moment is right now to get something out of Russians," he said. "Also because the general attitude [of the North Korean leadership] is not to be too much dependent on any country, especially China.”
Choe would be the most senior North Korean official to visit Russia since Kim Jong Un took power after his father’s sudden death in late 2011.
Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report.