So now Kim Jong Un’s landmark visit to Moscow, which would have been the first meeting between the young North Korean leader and another head of state, will not take place. This came to light in an official announcement from Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov.
Over the course of the last few months, many doubted whether the visit would actually occur—some people even began placing bets. Nonetheless, for those who entrust excessive confidence in the media and had already written about Kim Jong-un’s trip to Moscow as if it were a done deal, Peskov’s announcement arrived unexpectedly. What exactly compelled Kim Jong Un to cancel his visit? But in this case, if anything, it would have been better to guess as to why and for what reasons the visit received such fanfare—with Pyongyang’ own approval, no less—for as long as it did.
As he explained why Kim Jong-un would not be appearing at Moscow’s Victory Day celebrations, Dmitry Peskov alluded to certain “affairs between the Koreas.” This remark seemed rather out of place, especially bearing in mind that in Pyongyang as in Seoul, all was calm. Many interpreted it as a hint of a potential coup threat—the suggestion was that Kim did not want to leave Pyongyang for too long, fearing that dissatisfied higher ups might try to take advantage of his absence to conspire against him.
Stll, this version of events does not appear terribly convincing. Of course, one cannot say for sure whether a coup was in the works with absolute certainty. Palace intrigues throughout the ages has always been a murky issue, and such matters are not unprecedented in North Korean history: one attempt against Kim Jong-un’s grandfather stands out. In 1956, dissatisfied functionaries attempted an (unsuccessful) plot against Generalissimo Kim il-Sung, right when the Great Leader was on a trip across Eastern Europe.
However, in practice Kim Jong-un should not worry too much about the risk of a coup against him. His leadership is completely unchallenged. Officials at the highest level may express displeasure in private, but they all understand that there is no one to replace him. For this young man descends from the “Baekdu bloodline,” that is, he is the descendant of his father and grandfather in a country which in practice functions as an absolute monarchy.
For various reasons other “princes” will not try to replace him. Any attempt to bring to power an individual with no connection to the Kim family, most likely will bring about total destabilization. Such an outcome would be tantamount to the collapse of the regime and the subsequent implosion of the whole country. After all, richer, more attractive South Korea lies just a stone’s throw away. The fall of the regime would be a rueful end for all the elite—regardless of how one or another of its members actually feels toward Kim Jong-un. They are all in the same boat and understand that perfectly. As far as one can judge from outside, they are in no hurry to sink that ship unless it were to become absolutely necessary.
Another hypothesis connects Kim Jong-un’s change of plans with South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s decision not to participate in the Moscow celebrations. It supposes that the real aim of the planned visit was to realize a meeting between the leaders of both Koreas on neutral territory. Park Geun-hye’s refusal to travel to Moscow (purportedly, under pressure from the United States) made the former plan impossible to carry out, so Kim Jung-il’s visit would have been pointless.
But this theory too does not hold water. Celebrating May 9th would not exactly be the best context for a meeting of the two Koreas at the highest level, even though the necessity of such a meeting has been growing over a long period. It is difficult to imagine how leaders of the two Korean states would manage to meet another calmly and productively while also having to attend to an enormous parade and related festivities. Additionally, during the past few months there have been no signals that a summit between Seoul and Pyongyang might be in the works.
A much more likely explanation would be that Kim Jong-un was never terribly serious about coming to Moscow in the first place. The fact is the North Korean leader has one very curious attribute—he constantly avoids holding meetings with foreign heads of state. Kim Jong-un has held the highest post in the country for three years already, and in that time he has never once met with a single one of his foreign colleagues. In 2013 he even ignored the President of Mongolia after he arrived in Pyongyang for an official visit—one supposes that this was a rather unusual situation in the annals of diplomatic history. That being said, Kim Jong-un eagerly and easily enjoys communicating with foreigners who occupy more modest positions. Just remember the eccentric American basketball player Dennis Rodman’s frequent trips to Pyongyang. In these instances the North Korean leader shows himself to be a perfectly adequate and cordial host.
What could have given rise to this reluctance toward interacting with his own colleagues? One can only guess. Nevertheless, the choice of Moscow’s Victory Day parade for Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic debut came off as an exceedingly dubious ida from the very beginning. Political figures from across the world will be on hand for the festivities, as will the press, who will be quite tricky to control. As such, any slip-up by the Great Leader will surely be noticed and will receive no small publicity. In other words, for a person who for one reason or another has been avoiding summits of this kind, the atmosphere could not have been less attractive.
Moreover, Russia’s position on North Korea’s rocket and nuclear programs could have played a role as well. Disregarding the noticeable economic cooperation between the two countries (which, by the way, has involved less actual cooperation so much as an active and boisterous discussion of it), Russia’s position on the nuclear question remains firm, and Kim Jong-un would inevitably have run into that hurdle in Moscow. Such a confrontation is not terribly unusual, however Diplomats constantly handle contradictions of a similar nature in a given relationship. But Russia’s reluctance to remove the nuclear issue from the discussion table may have been an additional factor that influenced Kim’s decision.
To be sure, there is one problem with this story: why did the discussion over Kim Jong-un’s trip to Moscow continue on with such intensity for so many months? In all likelihood, only future historians will be able to say with absolute confidence, but it would appear that for some time Kim Jong-un sincerely considered this trip. Sure enough, the trip would have made perfect sense if the DPRK was aiming to improve relations with Russia, particularly if they were counting on direct and indirect economic aid from Russia to lessen their dependence on China.
Nonetheless, after soberly judging and weighing the situation, Kim Jong-un rethought his trip—just as many had predicted. Kim Jong-un is famous for his impulsive decisions and improvisation, so there is no need to be surprised by such a turn of events.
So, what are we left with at the end of the day? How might Kim’s decision to cancel the trip influence the relationship between Russia and North Korea? Chances are, not at all. Cancelling his visit was, to a certain extent, a slight, but for the most part will not create any serious problems for Russia. One cannot exclude the possibility that Kim Jong-un’s appearance at the celebrations might have caused more problems for Russia’s reputation than his unexpected decision not to come. Of course, a certain level of consensus at the highest level—or even gestures in that direction—would have helped energize current attempts to put economic cooperation between Russia and North Korea on track. These efforts will continue regardless of the push they would have received from the visit, however (it is another issue entirely, but the viability of the majority of these initiatives remain rather doubtful doubtful). Accordingly, it is likely that this would-be visit will remain a minor episode in the history of Russian and North Korean relations.
Andrei Lankov is a historian, specialist in Korean studies, and professor at Kookmin University (Seoul)
This publication originally appeared in Russian.
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