SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will send a special envoy to Russia next week, both countries announced Friday, in a trip expected to focus on how to boost ties at a time when his country faces deepening diplomatic isolation.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency said Choe Ryong Hae will visit Russia soon, but didn't specify the dates or the exact purpose of the trip. Russia's Foreign Ministry later said Choe would visit Nov. 17-24.
The ministry said in a statement that Russia hopes to discuss trade and economic ties, the situation on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia, and other international issues. It said Choe will visit Moscow as well as Khabarovsk and Vladivostok in Russia's Far East.
Choe, a senior Workers' Party official, is considered as one of 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 longtime ally and main aid provider — are not as strong as they once were. China was angered when 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 U.N. sanctions and cracked down on North Korean banking activities.
Russia, for its part, has been seeking to bolster ties with North Korea amid a longtime 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.
Choe's trip also appears aimed at easing North Korea's diplomatic isolation, said analyst Cheong Seong-chang at the private Sejong Institute. He noted this week's announcement of a free-trade agreement between rival South Korea and China.
The U.N. 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 U.S. in what analysts say is an attempt to attract aid, but Seoul and Washington have said the North must first take steps toward nuclear disarmament.
North Korea released two American detainees last weekend, but President Barack Obama squelched speculation that might pave the way for a new round of nuclear talks, saying the U.S. needs more than "small gestures" before reopening any high-level dialogue.
Choe was also a member of a high-profile North Korean delegation that visited South Korea in early October and agreed to resume senior-level talks. The talks, however, haven't moved forward because of tension over propaganda leaflets that South Korean activists send by balloon across the border into North Korea.
Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.