Kim Jong-un’s initial years in power were marked by a conspicuous absence of foreign state visits when contrasted with the record of his father and grandfather. But over the last year, the DPRK Chairman has rectified this by conducting a series of important meetings with some of the world’s most influential leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump. Also crucial to Kim’s outreach as part of the ongoing peace process have been his increasingly cordial meetings with RoK President Moon Jae-in.
Kim Jong-un has used the peace process to advance a message that his country seeks greater trading connectivity with neighbours and other partners in an age where the world collectively strives for an end to hostilities on the Korean peninsula. The DPRK’s location and history dictates that in a post-sanctions environment, Pyongyang’s biggest trading partners will be Seoul, Beijing and Moscow.
The RoK is invaluable to a prosperous DPRK because a genuine peace which paves the way for economic openness cannot happen without the mutual understanding and good will of the Korean people on both sides of the divided peninsula. As China is a neighbour of the DPRK and the largest economy in Asia, it is natural that the DPRK should want to prosper from Belt and Road connectivity with its northern neighbour. With DPRK representatives in attendance at Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum, it is clear that Pyongyang seeks to learn from China’s experience in rapid development and global connectivity as the DPRK will likely ease its way into the rules based trading environment in which China is a major factor.
Finally there is Russia, the DPRK’s other northern neighbour. During the Cold War, Pyongyang was able to maintain relations with both of its northern neighbours even after the early 1960s. Today, an energy hungry Korean peninsula could benefit greatly from Russian energy pipelines that in a new era could foreseeably flow seamlessly into the RoK via the DPRK. In this sense, there is a pragmatic reason for Seoul to want Moscow and Pyongyang to develop renewed warm relations while it is also to Moscow’s advantage to see greater inter-Korean cooperation that could lead to the consecration of such a pipeline that could complement the rail links that RoK officials are set to build in the DPRK.
In this sense, Kim’s visits to China, Singapore and Vietnam are now complemented by a visit to the DPRK’s Russian neighbour in a clear sign that today’s DPRK leadership understands the importance of reaching out to multiple countries in the open spirit that has defined the Korean peace process thus far.
There are of course many challenges to the peace process which lie ahead but it has already been made clear that like Moon Jae-in and Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin’s government favours a peace process based on a sense of balance between security concerns regarding de-nuclearization and the DPRK’s desire for sanctions relief in exchange for responsibly de-escalating military tensions.
As such, the DPRK clearly views Russia as an important neighbour and partner but this should not be confused for any attempts by the DPRK to choose one military power over another in terms of its security priorities. Kim Jong-un has made it clear that the long term goal of his country is economic development and increased trading and investment opportunities for his people. As such, it would be wrong to assign an interpretation of Kim’s visit to Russia as one that serves any military purpose. Instead, the world must understand that from the DPRK’s perspective, diplomacy revolves around preparing for a new future as much as it involves cementing partnerships that can help to advance the purpose of the current peace process.