Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, refused an invitation to visit Moscow to mark the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II because Russia refused to meet Pyongyang’s demands for special treatment for the young dictator.
A spokesman for the Kremlin announced on Thursday that Mr Kim had ‘decided to stay in Pyongyang’ due to ‘internal issues’.
The North Korean leader’s snub to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, apparently came as a surprise to Moscow, which only hours earlier had indicated that preparations for Mr Kim’s first overseas visit since he inherited the country in December 2011 were well under way.
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that Mr Kim opted to remain in Pyongyang because Russia “refused to comply with the North’s request for special treatment, given that there will be several other foreign dignitaries at the event.
‘Without top-grade security, Kim would inevitably have become a freak show for the global press’, it added.
Being treated equally with other international leaders – and not enjoying centre-stage in the commemorative events, as he always does at home – would also have damaged his standing in the eyes of the North Korean public.
I am feeling pretty smug at the moment because I had bet that Kim would chicken out of this. However, I have to admit that I did not even come close to guessing the reason they would give (I thought they’d put it about that he was sick, like anyone who isn’t a total dribbling idiot would do).
Of course, the Chosun Ilbo has something of a reputation for printing garbage when it comes to North Korea, so this should be taken with a pinch of salt, but you also have to bear in mind that setting out ridiculous conditions so as to provide an excuse for non-compliance is an old DPRK strategy.
My own inclination, however, is to suspect that, in fact, the North Korean side negotiated its way out of this one. A Kim visit would have been a major diplomatic coup for Putin, so the price was probably rather high. Immediately suspicions swing towards recent sweetheart Russia-NK mining and gas deals… But the equation just doesn’t add up. North Korea’s mineral and hydrocarbon resources are nothing compared to what Russia already has buried underneath Siberia, meaning that the gas and copper deals cannot be anything but an excuse to pay sweetners to North Korea in the future.
So, the quid pro quo for the abandoned state visit must lie somewhere else. My guess would be in an agreement to stop causing problems regarding the planned Eurasian rail links between Seoul and Russia.
However, North Korea has for years based its survival on the making of promises that it has no intention of keeping. Its diplomats are experts when it comes to kicking the can down the road, and the Russians no doubt realise that they stand a very good chance of being had in this deal. Nevertheless, in light of the loss of face associated with backing out, they have no choice but to keep smiling awkwardly and cross their fingers.
The Chinese, who recently lost patience and ditched North Korea after years of similar frustrations, must be feeling pretty smug right now…