Russia Is Becoming North Korea’s New Best Friend

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Russia has been looking to make allies where ever it can across the globe over the last few years. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been cozying up to ostracized states on all continents, including Cuba, Iran and Venezuela, in his efforts to fight what he perceives as “Western imperialism”.

Recently, Putin has also been making renewed efforts to improve his relationship with another isolated Asian neighbor in North Korea, and his “economic goody bag” charm offensive seems to be working as North Korea declared 2015 to be a special “year of friendship” with Russia earlier this month.

Korean Leader Kim Jong Un to visit Moscow in May

A couple of weeks ago, the Kremlin confirmed that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is planning to visit Moscow in May. This will be his  first visit abroad since taking control of the reclusive nation after the death of his father in 2011.

President Putin invited 68 heads of state to visit Moscow to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union defeating Nazi Germany in World War II. TO datye, only 26 leaders have confirmed they will attend.

The global media are rife with speculation regarding whether Kom Jong Un will actually make the trip. However, any way you look at it, Putin can use the global attention to divert the focus from Western attempts to isolate him. Related to this, a recent 10-day disappearance by Putin created a media frenzy that kept news about violations of the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine out of the headlines.

“He [Putin] likes these high-profile events,” noted Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. “It’ll make him feel good. It’ll make him think that he’s still an important international leader.”

Most analysts are in agreement that Putin’s invitation to Kim is an empty symbolic gesture for the most part, and his attendance will do little to bolster Putin’s international prestige or showcase Russia’s international role.

Statement from political analyst

A few analysts, however, believe Putin invite suggests that there is more of substance in the works. “North Korea is a convenient friend for Moscow — it is anti-American and it is a key part of Asia,” commented Dr. Leonid Petrov, an Asian Studies professor at the Australian National University. “Russia lost many of its traditional allies — it needs friends, both economically and politically.”

Russia and North Korea have a long history

Political analysts also point out that it is not surprising that Kim will have his first trip abroad as North Korean leader to Russia and not China. Pyongyang’s close relationship with China has deteriorated over the last few years, largely because of Chinese opposition to North Korea‘s ongoing development of nuclear weapons.

By the same token, North Korea and Russia also share a long diplomatic history. Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korea state, served in the Soviet army, receiving military and political training in communist guerrilla tactics back in the late 1940s.

Moreover, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a major supporter of North Korea until tits economic collapse in 1991. China then took over the role of providing aid, but the late Kim Jong Il traveled to Moscow regularly, and in fact visited with Putin in Russia just few months before his death in 2011.

Analysts note the break down in Chinese-North Korean relations gave Russia a chance to increase its influence in Asia even though it is on the political hot seat with its interference in eastern Ukraine.

Russia agreed to forgive 90% ($10 billion) of North Korea’s Soviet-era debt back in 2012, as well as to make investment into energy, health care and educational projects between the two countries. The deal was finalized last year, with the political promises already transforming into closer economic cooperation om several fronts.

Last October, Russia and North Korea’s touted a partnership to rebuild North Korea’s railroad system. This was envisioned as a 20 year project in exchange for increased access to mineral resources. Sources say the two nations are also considering shared advanced development zones to boost bilateral trade, and a  pipeline through North Korea to deliver Russian gas to South Korea, the world’s second-largest gas importer..

Also of note, the chief of staff of the Russian armed forces announced plans for joint military drills with North Korean forces last month, which clearly seems to be a response to the annual U.S. and South Korean military training exercises.

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