Putin and Kim Jong-un’s Special ‘Friendship’ on the Rocks
Policy + Politics

Putin and Kim Jong-un’s Special ‘Friendship’ on the Rocks

Just a few months after their two countries declared a “Year of Friendship” to celebrate greater political and economic ties, the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un is in question.

Kim, the reclusive young North Korean leader who took power on the death of his father in 2011, had been widely expected to visit Moscow at Putin’s invitation in order to attend a major celebration commemorating the end of World War II. Instead, North Korea announced Monday the president of its parliament would attend the celebration. 

The trip would have been significant for Kim not just because it was to be his first venture abroad as ruler, but because Russia was the destination. The potential visit, as well as various discussions about deepening North Korea’s economic ties with Moscow, had been seen by experts as evidence of Kim’s desire to establish relationships that would reduce his country’s dependence on China.

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Putin’s Russia, meanwhile, needs all the new friends it can get. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula last year, and in the face of the Kremlin’s continued support of armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine, Moscow has been hit with punishing sanctions by the U.S. and Europe.

Relations between Putin’s government and the West have become so tense that many western leaders have also declined to attend the celebrations in Moscow this month, despite the fact that their countries were allied with Russia in the Second World War. 

Widely reported as a “snub” to Putin, North Korea’s decision also sparked a rash of rumor-mongering over what the real reason behind it might be.

On Monday, Britain’s Telegraph newspaper passed along a Hong Kong television report’s suggestion that Kim was demonstrating his displeasure at a failed arms deal involving four of Russia’s S-300 anti-aircraft/ballistic missile systems. 

Other reports suggested that Kim demanded to be given “special treatment” that would make him stand out among the dozens of other world leaders expected to attend. The South Korean paper Chosun Ibo reported that Kim, who is styled as something approaching a god in his own country, would suffer by comparison if he were not somehow lifted above other international leaders. Still other reports suggested that the “special treatment” complaint arose simply because Moscow had declined to accommodate a reportedly massive security entourage that Kim demanded.

Related: In Ukraine, Top US General Says Russia Is Ready to Strike 

Finally, the International Business Times and other publications speculated that what really bothered Kim was the prospect of a coup taking pace while he was away. They pointed out that just last week Kim had ordered 15 executions, sparking rumors that his grip on power was in question.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov did nothing to quiet the rumor of a possible uprising against Kim, telling the Associated Press on Tuesday that unspecified “internal matters” were behind the cancellation. 

Whatever the reason, what was supposed to be a “Year of Friendship” is turning out to be just another awkward long-distance relationship.

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