The powerful North Korean Workers Party Secretary Choe Ryong-hae left Pyongyang on Saturday to fly to the summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the official [North] Korean Central News Agency said.

Choe stopped off in Beijing, but a government official here said that he is unlikely to meet any big international figures there or in Brazil.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a sports fan and has vowed to make sports one of his regime's priorities. He has built a ruinously expensive ski resort, riding club and other sports infrastructure despite the North's chronic cash shortage and famously hobnobs with ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman.

During the London Olympics in 2012, Kim sent Sports Minister Pak Myong-chol and Kim Yong-nam, the titular head of state, to the Sochi Olympics in 2014. And Army politburo chief Hwang Pyong-so, Choe and former United Front Department chief Kim Yang-gon attended the closing ceremony of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, triggering a short-lived thaw.

The dispatch to Incheon, aboard Kim's personal jet, was partly prompted by the success of the North Korean team, which ranked seventh in the medals table.

The ambassadors of Brazil, China, Russia and Cuba came to the Pyongyang airport to send Choe off, suggesting that one goal of his trip is to try and break the North’s diplomatic isolation.