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North Korea, Russia exploring mutual need for a friend

North Korea looks to Russia for trade, aid and an ally

Hermetic North Korea dispatched a senior political figure to Russia for a weeklong visit aimed at shoring up economic and political ties between two countries snubbed by much of the rest of the world.

Choe Ryong Hae, a top official of the ruling North Korean Workers' Party, arrived in Moscow on Monday and had plans to visit the far eastern Russian cities of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk to discuss trade and projects, the Korean Central News Agency and Russia's Tass reported.

China has long been North Korea's closest ally, geographically as well as ideologically, but ties have been strained after three nuclear tests by Pyongyang in defiance of international agreements and its blatant pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.

Choe, believed to be a close confidant of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was sent to China last year to meet with President Xi Jinping to smooth out relations strained by Pyongyang's rogue behavior during the first year of Kim's leadership.

Choe was also among three high-ranking members of a North Korean delegation that made a surprise visit to South Korea last month to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, a rare diplomatic gesture from the communist side of the divided peninsula.

In July, the Chinese president traveled to South Korea and met President Park Geun Hye, skipping the traditional stopover in Pyongyang in what was seen as a signal of reproach.

Kim, 32, had little obvious experience in leadership before his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011. The younger Kim inherited the top position in governing the impoverished and isolated nation of 24 million, only the third leader of the communist dynasty founded by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

North Korean officials have also been on somewhat of a charm offensive in recent weeks to counter calls for Kim to be brought before the International Criminal Court to face charges of human rights violations. Last week, Pyongyang released two American citizens it had sentenced to hard labor for unspecified crimes against the government.

Russia has developed its own problems on the international front with its seizure of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and support for separatists occupying key industrial regions in eastern Ukraine. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Moscow, which together with the sharp drop in oil prices have driven the ruble's dollar value to historic lows and pushed Russia to the brink of recession.

A close ally during the Soviet era, Moscow has again begun making significant investments in North Korea. Russia last year finished building a 34-mile rail link between Russia's southeastern port of Khasan and North Korea's Rason terminal. Russia also wrote off most of North Korea's $11-billion debt in 2012.

"North Korean diplomacy is getting increasingly active on the Russian track again," the Tass news agency effused over Choe's visit. "For a third time this year, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is sending a senior envoy to Moscow."

The Kremlin has also signaled its concern about Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Tass that "the outlook for denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula would be the first subject to be taken up with Choe.

But the two sides also will seek to boost trade and economic cooperation to "a new dimension," including joint projects in energy and agriculture and Russian access to North Korean natural resources with an estimated worth of $25 billion, Tass said.

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