PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — A delegation of North Korean officials headed by one of Kim Jong Un's chief lieutenants returned to Pyongyang on Friday after visiting Cuba to pay respects to Fidel Castro, whom North Korea has called a "great comrade."
The delegation, led by Choe Ryong Hae, also took the opportunity to do some rare diplomatic spadework with South American leaders.
Choe, one of the North's most powerful officials under leader Kim Jong Un, met with the presidents of Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua while in Havana, according to the North's state-run media. Details of the meetings were not known, though the state media reports said the presidents praised the North and its socialist policies.
Choe was met at Pyongyang's airport by Cuba's ambassador.
Though he has been the focus of numerous rumors speculating whether he is in or out of favor, Choe has emerged as one of the most visible officials in the Kim Jong Un regime. Among other trips abroad, he made a surprise trip as head of a delegation to the 2014 Asian Games, held in Incheon, South Korea, and this year went to the Rio Olympics.
Kim Jong Un, who assumed office in late 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, has yet to travel abroad or officially meet any foreign heads of state.
North Korea has made a point out of showing its solidarity with Cuba since Castro's Nov. 25 death, going so far as to declare a three-day mourning period in his honor.
South Korean media have suggested the North's high-profile response to Castro's death might be at least in part a reflection of concern in Pyongyang that Havana may be more willing to develop relations with Seoul now that the era of Fidel Castro is over.
While the two countries shared a common enemy in Washington throughout the years, Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and successor, has already begun a rapprochement with President Barack Obama.