N Korea leader's top aide to visit Russia

N Korea leader's top aide to visit Russia
Choe Ryong-hae.
PHOTO: AFP

North Korea plans to dispatch leader Kim Jong-un's top aide to Russia, Pyongyang's state media said Friday, in apparent efforts to boost ties with its rare patron amid deepening diplomatic isolation and shriveling outside assistance.

Choe Ryong-hae, a secretary of the ruling Workers' Party, will travel to Moscow "in the near future" as Kim's special envoy, the Korean Central News Agency reported, without elaborating.

Choe's planned trip comes one week after Hyon Yong-chol, the communist state's minister of the People's Armed Forces, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin while visiting the capital to celebrate the 90th birthday of former Soviet Union Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov.

With Putin currently in Australia for the Group of 20 summit, Choe is likely to depart after his return this weekend, observers say.

Though Choe's agenda remains unknown, the sides may discuss a summit between Kim and Putin, and cooperation on military areas and North Korean human rights, experts say. The two countries recently launched a joint venture to modernize the North's railway network.

A former director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army, Choe is one of the most trusted confidants of the young leader.

Though the coveted post was taken over early this year by Hwang Pyong-so, he still seems to be wielding formidable power, accompanying Kim on most public outings and delivering his messages overseas.

Last month, Choe made a surprise visit to the South along with Hwang and United Front Department Director Kim Yang-gon, chiefly to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon. He also went to Beijing last year and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Pyongyang appears to be falling into deeper isolation as its relations with China, a top political and economic benefactor, remain frosty especially since the shock execution in December of Jang Song-thaek, the leader's influential uncle known for his close ties with Beijing.

Robert King, the US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, called their relationship "rocky" at a forum in Seoul on Thursday.

The international community is also raising voices against its rampant human rights violations.

A UN panel is scheduled to vote next week on a resolution on the human rights situation in the reclusive country, which would call for justice for the perpetrators and a possible referral to the International Criminal Court.

"A deepening sense of diplomatic isolation appears to be a significant factor behind Choe's excursion given the recently concluded South Korea-China free trade pact and President Park Geun-hye's display of hopes for a trilateral summit with China and Japan," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the private Sejong Institute.

"Without North Korea's clear commitment to a denuclearization, the possibility is low for a summit between Kim and Xi at least in the near future. That could well be a reason for the North to seek one with Putin, which will also help Russia expand its say on the peninsula and draw Pyongyang's cooperation on railway projects."

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