Is Kim Jong-un playing off Russia and China for gain?

Kim Jong-un in talks with Chinese Politburo member Zhao Leji in Pyongyang this month. Image | Rodong Sinmun

A recent flurry of diplomacy activity suggests that Kim Jong-un may be reviving his grandfather’s old strategy of playing off Russia and China against one another to get them competing to support him.

Top Chinese Communist Party Politburo leader Zhao Leji visited Pyongyang in mid-April, prompting speculation that a summit with Xi Jinping is in the works to mark the 75th anniversary of ties in October. 

Kim has declared 2024 to be the “year of DPRK-China friendship.” 

At the same time, North Korea’s ministers of education and health visited Moscow, and Russia’s spy chief visited Pyongyang, as part of the follow-up to the Kim-Putin summit last year.

The exchanges not only underscore how the two superpowers have broken ranks with the international community and are no longer condemning Pyongyang for its nuclear program. But the timing recalls the way Kim’s grandfather, the founding leader Kim Il-sung, manipulated the animosity between his main allies to his own benefit. Indeed, this strategy was so ingrained that when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Kim Il-sung feared domination by China and immediately reached out to replace the Soviets with the United States.

Kim Jong-un met with Zhao Leji April 13, embracing him three times and proposing a toast to the “good health” of Xi Jinping. Zhao, the third-ranking member of the Chinese party’s Politburo Standing Committee and Chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, reportedly presented Kim with a statue of eight galloping horses and boxes of 30-year-old Maotai liquor.

Analysts speculated that Zhao’s mission was to lay the groundwork for Kim to visit Beijing in October. 

Logo for the Year of China-North Korea Friendship. Image | Rodong Sinmun

Zhao also met with his counterpart, Choe Ryong-hae, who is a Politburo member and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly. They signed agreements on visa exemption, translation and publication of classical works, issues related to tariffs and quarantine, communication information including radio and TV, and rapid postal delivery, according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

China has recently resumed tourism with North Korea, and is encouraging its citizens to visit.

Russia has similarly made support for North Korea a foreign policy priority in the wake of Moscow’s isolation after its attack on Ukraine.

On April 13 Health Minister Jong Mu-rim and a delegation left Pyongyang bound for Russia, after a send-off from Russian Ambassador Alexander Matsegora.

As they departed, Minister of Education Kim Seung-doo returned from talks in Moscow about setting up Russian language education in North Korea. 

At the end of March, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Naryshkin, visited Pyongyang for talks with the head of state security, Ri Chang-dae. It is not clear what they discussed, but sources in Moscow say Russian authorities are now complying with Pyongyang’s request to repatriate defectors. In mid-March, a South Korean who helps defectors was arrested in Moscow on charges of espionage. Russia used to crackdown on North Korean construction workers entering the country on student visas, as a measure to get around sanctions. Now, it turns a blind eye. 

Earlier in March, in a different type of exchange, a ballet troupe from the Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theatre in Vladivostok performed “Sleeping Beauty” in Pyongyang. As with China, Russian travel agencies are also actively promoting tourism to North Korea. 

On the international stage, Russia is clearly ahead of China in terms of its backing of North Korea. On March 28, it exercised its veto power against renewing the mandate of the Panel of Experts monitoring North Korea’s compliance with sanctions.

Zane Han

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