As the year comes to a close it’s clear that 2018 was a year of paradigm shifts in Korea and beyond. Among its most notable aspects, this was the year Kim Jong Un, who in his role as North Korea’s Supreme Leader has been by and large been a homebody, made several trips abroad.
Kim’s demonstrable willingness to travel outside the confines of the DPRK has subsequently spawned invitations from other states traditionally friendly to the DPRK.
This past October, Mongolia’s President Khaltmaagiin Battulga invited Kim Jong Un to visit Ulaanbaatar. Russia, for its part, has been in a state of hopeful anticipation for a visit from Kim Jong Un for the better part of this year.
South Korean ambassador to Russia, Woo Yoon-keun, recently asserted that Kim Jong Un was likely to visit Russia by the end of November this year. Nevertheless, within days the Kremlin stated that Kim’s prospective visit to Russia would not likely happen until next year.
Hopes throughout the second half of 2018 that Kim Jong Un will pay a visit to various countries naturally raises the question of why there is a sudden interest in playing host to the North Korean leader.
They have all assessed that hosting Kim Jong Un won’t send the wrong message to South Korea
When looking at the relationships China (where Kim visited three times in quick succession), Mongolia, and Russia have with the DPRK, one common thread is the idea of diplomatic equidistance.
All three countries, which in even in relatively recent history maintained exclusive ties with North Korea, have opted to attempt a delicate balance between their ties with Pyongyang and their relations with Seoul.
It seems, however that they have all assessed that hosting Kim Jong Un won’t send the wrong message to South Korea. This is especially important for Mongolia and Russia, which the South Korean government has included in its “New Northern” economic initiative.
Separately analyzing the cases of Kim’s repeated visits to China, as well as Vladimir Putin and President Battulga’s invitations to the DPRK’s leader yields interesting insights into how these countries assess the importance of ties with the DPRK.
If we can gather anything from Kim’s three visits to the PRC, it is that despite thorns in the relationship, ties between Beijing and Pyongyang remain strong. During the last two months of his life, Kim Jong Il, as if he knew that his time was near, scurried to set the stage for relations between Beijing and Pyongyang under his soon-to-be successor.
Yet in spite of the “Dear Leader’s” final efforts, events such as the execution of Jang Song Thaek and four nuclear tests have tested the vitality of China-DPRK ties. Nevertheless, China has not been willing to sacrifice its ally for one main reason.
For China, interests in the DPRK can largely be summed up with the word stability. North Korea factors into China’s desire for stability not only in terms of stemming conflict on China’s periphery, but also in maintaining strategic stability with the United States.
There are, in a manner of speaking, prestige points to be had for hosting the North Korean leader
From China’s vantage point, therefore, even as Beijing has grown demonstrably irritated with North Korea’s behavior over the past several years, China continues to see importance in maintaining its ties with Pyongyang.
The incentive for countries like Mongolia and Russia to invite North Korea’s Supreme Leader for a state visit, however are rather different. Indeed, whereas Moscow and Ulaanbaatar have publicly offered their official hospitality to Kim, the North Korean leader’s meetings with Xi Jinping were not made public until after the fact. Beijing had nothing to gain from advertising beforehand the fact that it had allowed Kim to sojourn in China.
For countries like Mongolia and Russia, however there are, in a manner of speaking, prestige points to be had for hosting the North Korean leader.
Mongolia-North Korea relations have a long, though not always friendly, history.
Ties between Pyongyang and Ulaanbaatar have remained stable in recent years, despite what could be considered to be then-President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj’s veiled swipe at North Korea’s political system while speaking at Kim Il Sung University in 2015.
Mongolia is, from a regional standpoint, geographically distant enough from the Korean peninsula so that it is not immediately affected by Korean security crisis. For Ulanbataar, however, having a voice in the Korean security crisis is crucial for one of the key aspects of contemporary Mongolian foreign policy.
A small country sandwiched between two giants, Mongolia relies on its status as a harmless, non-aligned state to play a diplomatic role in regional issues larger than Mongolia’s actual power and prestige.
A positive Mongolian role in the Korean security crisis, therefore would provide perhaps the best opportunity for Ulanbataar to prove its diplomatic mettle in small country diplomacy.
GO THEIR OWN WAY
For Russia, the key goal is restoring Russian leverage on the Korean peninsula. This must surely have been at the forefront of the Kremlin’s thinking when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov extended an invitation from Vladimir Putin to Kim Jong Un in May of this year.
Since that time, speculation has included the idea that Vladivostok could serve as a venue for the Trump-Kim summit, as well as the potential that Kim could visit the Eastern Economic Forum.
Last year, noting the downturn in Sino-North Korean ties and the corresponding uptick in Moscow-Pyongyang relations, analysts raised the possibility that the Kremlin may be stepping in to replace China as the DPRK’s main international partner. Russian efforts at expanding influence, while consistent and diligent, have yet to yield any major breakthroughs.
Russia’s aim is to increase its own influence
The Kremlin, for its part, shares in Beijing’s concerns over potential instability. Yet the simple fact is that instability in North Korea will affect China much more severely than it will Russia.
Russia’s aim is to increase its own influence. Indeed, as far back as the 1990’s, Russian policymakers came to regret letting Moscow’s post-Cold War leverage with Pyongyang wane.
Thus for Russia, influence factors in more than stability. For the Kremlin to secure a state visit from Kim would signal to the world that Russia is, at the very least an independent actor in the Korean peninsula, rather than merely an associate of China.
Whether or not the events of this year mean that Kim will travel abroad more regularly is anybody’s guess. Nevertheless, where Kim has gone, and where his presence has been welcomed, offers hints at the state of how other states view their relations with the DPRK.
Whatever way Kim reacts to the invitations he has received throughout the coming year will likely offer some insights into how Kim Jong Un assesses the DPRK’s relations with his potential hosts.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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