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North Korea ceremonial leader visits Venezuela, to meet with Maduro

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CARACAS (Reuters) – North Korea’s ceremonial leader Kim Yong Nam was expected to meet with socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro during a trip to the South American nation’s capital Caracas, Venezuela’s press office said on Tuesday.

Kim, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North’s rubber-stamp parliament that meets once or twice a year, arrived in Caracas on Monday. He met with Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Maduro’s welcoming of the North Korean leader comes as he deepens diplomatic relations with rivals of the United States and many European countries, such as Russia, China and Turkey, amid hyperinflation and a fifth year of economic contraction in Venezuela.

The United States and Europe have placed sanctions on Venezuelan government officials and blocked some financial transactions with the country in response to allegations of corruption, human rights violations, and a vote to re-elect Maduro in May that has been widely derided internationally as a sham.

Maduro blames an ‘economic war’ waged by the United States and domestic political rivals for the country’s problems. Critics say a failing socialist economic model is responsible for a humanitarian crisis, which has prompted 3 million people to emigrate since 2015.

The U.S. government is also weighing adding Venezuela to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, which currently includes North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria, a person familiar with the deliberations said last week.

Tensions over North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles spiked on the Korean peninsular last year and there were fears of a U.S. military response to North Korea’s threat to develop a weapon capable of hitting the United States.

Talks in June between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have allayed those concerns, and a detente between Pyongyang and Seoul has opened the door to closer ties. Kim Yong Nam made an unprecedented visit to South Korea before it hosted the Winter Olympics earlier this year.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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