Russia announced on Tuesday that the leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un is among 26 world leaders who have agreed to take part in the annual World War Two Victory Day celebration in May.
If Kim delivers his promise and makes the trip, it would be his first foreign trip since taking over as supreme leader of the scandalous and isolated country from his father, Kim Jong Il, who last visited Russia in 2011, just a few months before he died.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a Victory Day planning meeting that “leaders of 26 states confirmed their participation,” including the leaders of North Korea, Cuba, China, India, Mongolia, South Africa and Vietnam.
However, North Korea hasn’t officially commented on that matter. And there is no certainty as to whether Kim Jong Un himself would attend the event, or send some other top member of North Korea’s leadership. For example, his possible replacement for attending the event is Kim Yong Nam, president of the Supreme People’s Assembly (North Korea’s parliament), who is technically the head of the state.
Russian state-run news service RIA Novosti reported in January that North Korea had responded “positively” to the idea of inviting Kim Jong Un to Russia’s annual Victory Day celebrations.
The highlight of the May 9 celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany will be a vast military parade in Moscow’s Red Square overseen by the Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Russia’s defense minister, the annual event will be expanded this year to include 15,000 troops, cadets and Cossacks.
Some Western leaders have declined the Kremlin’s invitations to the military parade because of Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. However, Lavrov said some European leaders were still expected to come, including those from Greece, Norway, Slovakia, and several Balkan nations.
The announcement comes as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un appear to be ‘bromancing’, despite the strong Western resentment against North Korea’s regime.
Russia-North Korea friendship: What are the benefits?
Putin said late last year that closer ties between both countries would help “ensure regional stability and security.” Russia is also planning joint military exercises with North Korea to take place in 2015.
In turn, North Korea named 2015 the year of North Korean-Russian friendship, with goals to increase trading to $1 billion a year. The North Korean state news agency said the initiative “was caused by their joint bid to achieve a higher level in political, economic and cultural relations.”
North Korea is expected to gain financially and militarily from closer relations with Russia. In 2014 Moscow cancelled almost US $10 billion, or 90%, of North Korea’s bilateral debt and said it would invest the remaining $1.09bn – to be paid back over 20 years – in North Korea’s infrastructure projects such as a cross-border gas pipeline between Russia and the North, and a rail link to South Korea.
This month, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong was on an international trip spanning Belarus, Russia and Cuba.
Furthermore, Alexander Matsegora, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, said that Putin and Kim Jong Un are in frequent contact. “An active political dialogue is maintained at the highest and high level,” he told Russian news agency TASS. “The leaders of the two countries regularly exchange messages.”
Matsegora also said that the Kremlin believes there is room for large expansion of the economic relationship between the two isolated countries. “Taking into account the considerable unused potential, we are not yet satisfied with the level of its development,” he said. “A lot has to be done in this direction in the future.”
However, North Korea doesn’t have much to offer in terms of an economy. As has been repeatedly and expressly documented, one of its largest (if not the largest) exports is its own people, North Koreans, who have to work in third countries, with most of their wages paid not to them or to their families but to the North Korean government.
When China is not satisfied, go to Russia and vice versa
The three-year rule of Kim Jong Un has significantly strained North Korea’s relations with China. Beijing was very unhappy when Kim conducted a third underground nuclear test in early 2013, after which the Chinese supported further UN sanctions against North Korea. The Russians did support the sanctions, too, although with a lack of enthusiasm.
Some experts say that by accepting Russia’s offer to visit Moscow for the annual event, Kim Jong Un has decided to reemploy North Korea’s old tactic: when China is not satisfied, go to Russia and vice versa. Russia and China, in turn, compete with each other for the bromance with Kim Jong Un.
The developments in Russia and North Korea relations are actually more important for China as Beijing may have to revise its policy toward North Korea. The process has already begun when Xi Jinping had sent a personal message to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing on the occasion of the third death anniversary of Kim Jong Il, the father of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Some believe that such move has something to do with Beijing being disappointed in South Korea and the US. However, it could also be attributed to Russia’s heartwarming invitations to be friends with Kim Jong Un, which is unacceptable to China.
That being said, we will soon witness how the Putin-Kim bromance will affect the world’s attempts to end the North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
North Korea is believed to have between 10 and 16 nuclear weapons developed using plutonium or weapons-grade uranium. A recent report by the US researchers suggested that Kim Jong Un was poised to further expand his country’s nuclear program over the next few years up to as many as 100 nuclear weapons by end of the decade.