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US Experts: N. Korean Envoy Sent to Russia to Ease Diplomatic Isolation

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, welcomes North Korea's special envoy Choe Ryong Hae during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 20, 2014.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, welcomes North Korea's special envoy Choe Ryong Hae during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 20, 2014.

U.S. experts say North Korea’s recent dispatch of a special envoy to Russia is an attempt to ease diplomatic isolation by expanding ties with Moscow.

Choe Ryong Hae, a high-ranking member of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, wrapped up a week-long trip to Russia Monday.

During the rare trip, Choe received a warm welcome when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and handed him a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The contents of the letter are not known.

"We maintain friendly relations with one of our neighbors, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea," said the Russian president.

Frank Jannuzi is the president of the Mansfield Foundation and a long-time North Korea watcher. He said easing diplomatic isolation, along with expansion of economic ties with Moscow, was one of the achievements of Choe’s trip.

"Choe’s meeting [with Putin] reduces North Korea’s diplomatic isolation, and will probably result in a modest increase in Russia-DPRK bilateral trade and economic relations, to include the employment of North Koreans in the Russian Far East," said Jannuzi.

Some experts see Choe’s visit as an attempt by Pyongyang to ease its political and economic dependence on Beijing.

"Pyongyang is trying to not be dependent on Beijing. The outreach is part of Pyongyang’s effort to diversity relations," said Joseph DeTrani, who previously worked as a North Korea expert in the U.S. intelligence community.

Jannuzi said he agreed with that assessment. "DPRK-China relations remain chilly. The DPRK, with outreach to Europe, Seoul, Moscow, Tokyo and even Washington [by releasing detained Americans], is trying to improve its diplomatic leverage [with] its principle benefactor, Beijing."

Jannuzi said there is "a distinct possibility" that Pyongyang and Moscow could hold a summit next year, but only if Pyongyang refrains from further nuclear tests.

DeTrani said Kim would be reluctant to choose Vladimir Putin over Chinese President Xi Jinping as his first summit partner.

"I personally think Kim Jong Un would prefer visiting China first. My view would be that China would be in dialogue with the Russian Federation for coordination, not competition," said the former intelligence official.

Choe, a close aide to Kim, is the most senior North Korean official to visit Russia since Kim took power in late 2011. Choe was accompanied by several other senior officials, including Kim Kye Gwan, Pyongyang’s point man on nuclear talks.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.

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    Jee Abbey Lee

    Jee Abbey Lee is a veteran broadcast journalist with more than 10 years of experience in TV, radio, and the web. She serves as Voice of America's social media correspondent and is an expert of millennial lifestyle. 

    Lee received her graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to joining VOA, she worked at the Seoul bureau of CNN Travel and served as the chief Bank of Korea correspondent for Arirang TV.