Kim Jong-un may embark on his first ever foreign visit since assuming the title of North Korea’s Supreme Leader later this year. According to a report by The Korea Herald citing an anonymous South Korean diplomatic source, Kim has accepted an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend a May ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War — specifically, the victory of Soviet forces over Nazi Germany. “It was confirmed that North Korea gave a positive response to the Russian invitation for Kim Jong-un,” noted the source.
Should Kim travel to Moscow later this year, it would speak volumes about North Korea’s convergence with Russia. Back in 2011, most observers of North Korean affairs would have predicted that if and when Kim Jong-un left North Korea for an official visit, his destination almost without a shred of doubt would have been Beijing. However, beginning with the assassination of his uncle and erstwhile regime number two Jang Song-thaek in late-2013, relations between North Korea and China have grown increasingly frayed. Over the course of 2014, there were reports that a North Korean military academy had hung banners describing China as a “turncoat” and even an “enemy.” Additionally, Beijing has grown less overtly supportive of Pyongyang over the past year.
In the meantime, however, North Korea has expanded its official interactions with Russia. 2014 wasn’t the best of years for Russia’s acceptance on the international stage. Following its invasion of Crimea in early 2014 and its subsequent support for separatist Ukrainian rebels, Russia faced international isolation and sanctions from Western states. More recently, the collapse in global oil prices has placed the Russian economy on a precarious precipice, forcing Putin to seek reliable friends and partners the world over. While North Korea isn’t particularly known for its loyalty as an ally or as an arms customer (similar to, say, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria), Russia is likely looking to wield strategic influence over the ever-unpredictable Hermit Kingdom.
The benefits of closer ties with Russia are more obvious for Pyongyang. Russia, despite sanctions and economic unease, remains a major world power and a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council. Additionally, as a major energy exporter with a land border with North Korea, Russia could provide an important resource conduit for the regime. Although Russia is party to international sanctions against North Korea and is a member of the defunct Six Party Talks process on North Korea’s nuclear program, it may willingly shirk its international responsibilities should its economic circumstances continue to worsen.
What will be particularly worth watching out for in May should Kim really travel to Moscow is the manner in which Chinese President Xi Jinping approaches his meeting with the North Korean leader. In a perceived snub to Pyongyang, Xi broke longstanding Chinese tradition by visiting Seoul in July 2014 without a corresponding stop in North Korea. Xi is also invited to the May commemorative ceremony in Russia. Given current circumstance, it’s almost a given that a Xi-Kim meeting would be an uncomfortable affair (perhaps even rivaling the awkwardness of the Xi-Abe handshake at last year’s APEC Leaders’ Summit).