Friday, July 19, 2024

North Korea gives Russian defence ministry delegation 'warm welcome'

North Korea gives Russian defence ministry delegation 'warm welcome'
July 26, 2023 Web Desk

SEOUL, South Korea (AFP) - North Korea rolled out the red carpet for the Russian defence minister, state media said Wednesday, with delegations from Moscow and Beijing set to attend Korean War anniversary events, the country's first-known foreign visitors since its pandemic border closure.

Pyongyang is on Thursday marking the 70th anniversary of the signing of the July 27, 1953 Korean War armistice, which ended open hostilities and is celebrated as Victory Day in the North.

The Russian national anthem blared throughout Pyongyang International Airport, which was "wrapped up in a warm welcome atmosphere" to greet Moscow's Sergei Shoigu and his delegation Tuesday evening, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

Shoigu was greeted by North Korean Defence Minister Kang Sun Nam, and photos carried by the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed hundreds of uniformed soldiers of the Korean People's Army lining the airport holding signs welcoming the Russians. Shoigu laid flowers in front of giant bronze statues of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, video shared by the Russian defence ministry showed.

"For Russia, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is an important partner, with which we share a common border and a rich history of cooperation," Shoigu said according to a ministry statement, which added that the meeting would "contribute to strengthening cooperation between our ministries of defence".

Russia, a historic ally of North Korea, is one of a handful of nations with which Pyongyang maintains friendly relations. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been steadfast in his support for Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, including, Washington says, supplying rockets and missiles.

The fact that Russia's defence minister flew to Pyongyang while his country is at war was "very significant", said Park Won-gon, director of Ewha University's Institute of Unification Studies. "Even though the emergency quarantine system remains in place, Kim Jong Un may have felt the need to show something to his people at the Victory Day celebrations," he told AFP.

For the Chinese and Russians, their presence could send a "strong unified message" to the United States, Park added. But Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University, said the visit was unlikely to result in any arms deals or diplomatic advances, calling it "a symbolic show of solidarity on a war anniversary".

Change in border policy? 

Satellite imagery indicates North Korea has been preparing for the kind of large-scale military parade with which it typically fetes such anniversaries. South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that there were "clear signs" of preparations for a midnight parade at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang in recent days, citing multiple unnamed government sources.

The inclusion of foreign guests at this year's celebrations is a post-pandemic first and hints at new flexibility towards enforcing border controls. China also said it would send a delegation led by Politburo member Li Hongzhong that was due to arrive in Pyongyang Wednesday, suggesting they would not be required to undergo an extensive quarantine ahead of the Thursday anniversary event.

North Korea has been under a rigid self-imposed blockade since early 2020 to protect itself from Covid-19, preventing even its own nationals from entering the country. It only resumed some trade with China last year and allowed new Beijing envoy Wang Yajun to take up his position this year. He is the first known diplomat to cross into North Korea since the border closure in January 2020.

Russia's ambassador to Pyongyang, Alexander Matsegora, is known to have remained in the North Korean capital throughout the pandemic, even as staff numbers at his embassy dwindled and other foreign missions closed their doors.