North Korea will send top Communist party official Choe Ryong-hae as special envoy to Russia, state media have said, without stating the purpose of the trip.
Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also did not say when Choe Ryong-hae would go.
In Soviet times, Russia was a strong ally to North Korea, supplying aid and missile technology.
Relations with China, North Korea’s strongest supporter in recent years, have frayed recently.
North Korea will send Choe Ryong-hae as special envoy to Russia
Beijing is distancing itself from Pyongyang after North Korea raised tensions last year with a third nuclear test and issued threats of nuclear strikes against South Korea and the US.
North Korea has also pulled out of the six-party talks aimed at its nuclear disarmament which involve China, the two Koreas, Russia, Japan and the US.
The visit comes ahead of an expected UN General Assembly vote next week on a resolution – put forth by the EU and Japan – that condemns the North’s human rights record.
Choe Ryong-hae is thought to be one of Kim Jong-un’s closest associates. He went to Beijing last year as Kim Jong-un’s special envoy to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Choe Ryong-hae was also part of a high-profile delegations that went to South Korea in October to resume senior-level talks.
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Kim Jong-un has sent Choe Ryong-hae as special envoy to Beijing, North Korean state media has announced, amid cooling relations between the two neighbors.
Choe Ryong-hae, a top military official, flew to the Chinese capital on Wednesday, KCNA said.
The brief dispatch gave no details of the visit, which comes amid an apparent toughening of Beijing’s stance in the wake of Pyongyang’s third nuclear test.
Chinese media said Choe Ryong-hae met Wang Jiarui, a top foreign affairs official.
The visit – the duration of which remains unknown – follows weeks of high tension on the Korean peninsula.
China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner and closest ally. It has traditionally sought to maintain stability in North Korea, avoiding any crisis that could trigger the fall of the regime and propel a flow of refugees across the border.
In recent weeks, following Pyongyang’s February 12 nuclear test and amid strident rhetoric from its leaders, China has expressed frustration with North Korea, with state media openly debating the benefits of close ties.
Beijing supported expanded UN sanctions against Pyongyang after its nuclear test and some of its banks have recently suspended trading with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank.
Kim Jong-un has sent Choe Ryong-hae as special envoy to Beijing
It is also under domestic pressure after unidentified North Koreans seized, and subsequently released two weeks later, a 16-strong Chinese crew who had been fishing in the Yellow Sea.
The KCNA report described Choe Ryong-hae as director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army.
He has risen quickly under North Korea’s young leader – last year he was promoted to vice-marshal and given senior positions within the party’s key organizations.
Kim Jong-un inherited the North Korean leadership in December 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. The late Kim Jong-il visited China in August 2011 and his brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, who is thought to be a key adviser of the younger Kim Jong-un, in August 2012.
Choe Ryong-hae is thought to be the most senior North Korean official to visit China since then.
He appears to be the first top-level envoy publicly dispatched by the North Korean leadership to the region since the recent tensions, which saw multiple threats of attacks from North Korea and a show by the US of high-profile military hardware in joint exercises with the South.
Japan, meanwhile, said on Wednesday it would be open to direct talks with North Korea if it would help resolve the issue of Japanese nationals kidnapped by the communist state in the 1970s and 1980s.
The comments, from Japan’s top government spokesman, followed a visit to Pyongyang by a special envoy of Japanese leader Shinzo Abe. South Korea and the US have criticized the visit as unhelpful and said they were not consulted.
In another development, a KCNA report named a hard-line general, Kim Kyok-sik, as North Korea’s army chief. Kim Kyok-sik was previously defense minister, a lower ranked position, until earlier this month.
Kim Kyok-sik was said to be responsible for the shelling of South Korea’s border island Yeonpyeong in 2010, which killed four South Koreans.