North Korea's Kim heading to Russia to revive friendship

The Liberation Tower in Pyongyang commemorates Russia's help in liberating Korea from Japanese occupation. Moscow has already called for international sanctions on North Korea to be eased.
The Liberation Tower in Pyongyang commemorates Russia's help in liberating Korea from Japanese occupation. Moscow has already called for international sanctions on North Korea to be eased.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Pyongyang leader seeks counterbalance to China, support in standoff with US: Analysts

PYONGYANG • On the neighbouring mound to Mansu hill, where giant statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il look out over North Korea's capital, stands the Liberation Tower.

The star-topped stone obelisk has a bronze Soviet Union flag at its base and a panel showing Soviet and Korean troops going into battle together against the Japanese.

The ties between Pyongyang and Moscow, once its most important ally, go back decades. And after years of abeyance, current leader Kim Jong Un - the son and grandson of the chiefs immortalised on Mansu hill - is looking to revive links, with nuclear negotiations with Washington deadlocked and as he seeks a counterbalance to China.

Mr Kim is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok this week, reportedly tomorrow and Thursday.

Few details have been released, but the summit - the first between the two neighbours' leaders since Kim Jong Il met Mr Dmitry Medvedev eight years ago - comes less than two months after the Hanoi meeting between Mr Kim and US President Donald Trump broke up without reaching agreement on the North's nuclear arsenal.

Mr Kim has met Chinese President Xi Jinping four times in the space of a year but is now looking for wider international support in the standoff, say analysts.

Moscow has already called for international sanctions on the North to be eased, while the US has accused it of trying to help Pyong-yang evade some of the measures - accusations Russia denies.

The inscription on the monument in Pyongyang proclaims that "the great Soviet Union military" had "liberated Koreans from Japanese oppression" and their "heroic" deeds "will shine for 10,000 generations and more".

The Soviets later installed Kim Il Sung as the North's leader.

An exile who fought as a guerilla against Japanese forces in occupied China, he had fled to the Soviet Union, where records show his son Kim Jong Il was born - although Pyongyang insists his birthplace was a secret camp on the sacred Mount Paektu.

SELF-RELIANCE

It's part of the North's Juche - self-reliance - ideology not to rely on a single ally... Pyongyang has a group of experts on diplomacy who have been in their post for decades. They'll know how to play the game if it ever becomes necessary for Pyongyang to play off its allies against each other.

MR JEONG YOUNG-TAE, an analyst at the Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Moscow was a crucial backer of Pyongyang's and main aid provider during the Cold War, while Russian became a compulsory foreign language in the North's schools. Kim Jong Il is said to have been a fluent speaker.

That legacy will help the two leaders cement their relationship, said Mr Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and researcher in Seoul.

"Kim Jong Un's role model has always been his grandfather, not his father," he said. "Many believe he has a romanticised view on the North's shared past with the Soviet Union, largely because of his romanticised view of his grandfather."

The USSR began to reduce funding to the North as it began to seek reconciliation with Seoul in the 1980s, and Pyongyang was hit hard by the demise of the Soviet Union.

China has since stepped in to become the isolated North's most important ally, its largest trading partner and crucial fuel supplier. Now Mr Kim could be looking to balance Beijing's influence, analysts say.

During the Cold War, his grandfather was adept at exploiting the Communist rivalry between Beijing and Moscow to extract concessions from both.

"It's part of the North's Juche - self-reliance - ideology not to rely on a single ally," said Mr Jeong Young-tae, an analyst at the Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "Pyongyang has a group of experts on diplomacy who have been in their post for decades. They'll know how to play the game if it ever becomes necessary for Pyongyang to play off its allies against each other."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2019, with the headline 'North Korea's Kim heading to Russia to revive friendship'. Print Edition | Subscribe