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Potential Kim Jong Un Visit to Russia Highlights Possible Rift with China

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Officials in Moscow say Kim Jong Un will attend celebrations in Russia in May marking the Soviet victory over Germany in World War II. The decision by the North Korean leader to go to Russia before visiting his chief ally China could indicate a breach in the Sino-Korean relationship.

The news that Kim Jong Un has confirmed his attendance for the celebration in May marking the end of the second world war came from the office of the Kremlin’s presidential spokesman. No official announcement has come from Pyongyang about the trip.

Kim has not made any overseas trips since coming to power in North Korea in late 2011 when he succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, who died suddenly.

Professor Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst with Kookmin University in Seoul, said that if the North Korean leader makes his first international trip to Russia, it will be seen as an act of defiance to a degree against China, the North's chief ally and trading partner in the region.

“It’s clearly a sign to China and the entire world that North Korea is looking for better and closer ties with Russia. And it also wants to distance itself from China at least to some degree,” said Lankov.

There has also been speculation in the media that the North Korean leader may attend an international conference of heads of state in Indonesia in April.

Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing have been strained since Kim took over, especially since 2013 when North Korea defied international warnings and U.N. sanctions to conduct a third nuclear test.

Both China and Russia supported U.N. sanctions on the North for its nuclear and missile tests. But China has taken more of a leadership role in international diplomatic efforts to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said Beijing may be withholding an invitation for Kim Jong Un to visit until Pyongyang yields to international pressure to curb its nuclear program and restart international talks.

He said China is concerned about criticism from the international community if they accept Kim Jong Un, as there has been no progress made on North Korea.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has not yet visited North Korea nor met Kim Jong Un in person. But last year he made a state visit to South Korea and has met President Park Geun-hye six times since 2012.

North Korea’s late leader Kim Jong Il visited Russia in 2011, but he paid more regular visits to China.

VOA News Producer Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.