After three years in power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looks set to make his first trip abroad in May.
On Wednesday, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that Kim had accepted an invitation from Russia to attend a ceremony in Moscow to mark the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany in World War II, citing a Kremlin spokesman. Russia marks the occasion each year on May 9.
Russia reportedly extended the invitation last year for Kim to be one of the heads of state at the event. It is not known when exactly North Korea conveyed its acceptance.
If Kim does attend, it would mean that his first trip to a foreign country as leader wouldn’t be to China, North Korea’s longtime main ally and benefactor.
North Korea relies on China for trade and diplomatic support, but ties between the two have become strained in recent years due in large part to China’s growing frustration with the country's refusal to give up its nuclear weapons program. Last month, North Korea expert Andrei Lankov in a commentary described the current state of relations between Beijing and Pyongyang as being in “an unprecedented crisis.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping last year made an official visit to South Korea but has still not visited the North. In the past, Chinese leaders have customarily visited North Korea before the South.
North Korea is believed to resent its dependence on China and appears interested in developing partnerships with other countries. However, with North Korea’s reputation as a state with a dangerous nuclear weapons program and shameful human rights record, new friends are hard to come by.
The Soviet Union was an ideological ally of North Korea’s during the Cold War and provided large amounts of aid, which dried up after its fall in the early 1990s. Poor and isolated, North Korea may be hoping for a resumption of that generosity, Lankov suggested in his commentary for the news channel Al Jazeera.
“North Korean leaders obviously believe that Russia under Vladimir Putin will behave like the Soviet Union once did and shower North Korea with aid grants as a reward for Pyongyang's militant anti-Americanism,” Lankov wrote.
But Russia itself is increasingly isolated, facing a collapsing currency and sanctions from the West over its aggressive actions in Ukraine and persecution of dissidents at home.
In November, Kim’s special envoy, Choe Ryong Hae, visited Moscow, where he met with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Choe was the third high-ranking North Korean official to visit Russia in 2014, after nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam and Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong.
Russia and North Korea share a land border and have a history of cooperation on various resource and transportation projects. The signs of increased cooperation come as Russia is in the midst of efforts to develop its large, resource-rich far east region.
A recent report on the North Korean affairs website 38 North described the Korean peninsula as “a vital component of Russian President Vladimir Putin's 'Look East' policy,” which is now a “central foreign policy strategy in the wake of the breakdown of relations with the West.”
Borowiec is a special correspondent.