Putin, Kim rekindle close Russian-N Korean links dating back to the Stalin era

by IANS |

New Delhi, June 24 (IANS) Nearly a quarter century after his first visit as the newly-minted Russian President, Vladimir Putin was back last week in North Korea, where he met its leader Kim Jong-un - son of Kim Jong-il who he had met in 2000 - for talks on economic, security, and global issues and signed a Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

This unprecedented pact was cited as "the groundwork" for future bilateral relations in all spheres, including cultural and tourist ties, trade, economic relations, and security. Tellingly, it also includes a pledge by both to assist each other in case of "foreign aggression", amid what both termed efforts by the US and its allies "to destabilise the situation in Southeast Asia".

How should the development, which created frisson in the region, especially among neighbours South Korea and Japan and concern in the US, especially when Putin warned his country could arm North Korea on the same pattern as Western nations were supplying weapons to Ukraine, be seen?

First, it was not the first meeting between the two leaders. The North Korean leader, in his first visit out of his country after the Covid outbreak - had visited Russia's Far East in September last year and was hosted by President Putin, who travelled eastward.

While it is tempting to pass it off as a case of two isolated - but scarcely to be ignored - and heavily sanctioned countries reaching out to each other for mutual support, history and geopolitics indicate the two are far from chance partners thrown together by the vicissitudes of diplomatic realignments and their statecraft choices.

Like Russia, which has plenty of friends across the world, North Korea is not entirely alone either. Both Russia and China are old allies, and despite agreeing to sanction it over its nuclear weapons programme or disinclined to back it in any reckless adventure, they acknowledge its use in keeping the US, South Korea, and Japan on edge.

And then Russia's predecessor, the Soviet Union not only helped create - and then safeguarded - North Korea, but for good measure, also selected its first leader - and his family is still in power.

Kim Jong-un's grandfather Kim Il-Sung was handpicked by Stalin to become North Korea's leader after the Japanese were driven out at the end of the Second World War. His son and successor Kim Jong-Il - whom Putin met in 2000 - was born Yuri Irsenovich Kim in Soviet Russia in 1941 or 1942.

Kim Il-Sung, whose family fled Korea for Manchuria after Japan occupied and colonised the peninsula from 1910 onwards, had studied in China, where he also joined the Chinese Communist Party and fought against the Japanese who had invaded Manchuria in the 1930s. However as the tide turned against them, he and his remaining guerrillas crossed the Amur into Soviet Russia in 1940 and became part of the Red Army for the entire World War II.

On August 8, 1945, the Soviets declared war on Japan and by the time it surrendered, had arrived in Pyongyang. While North Korean accounts credit Kim Il-Sung with leading the liberation, it was only in September 1945 that he and 60 members of his band landed in Wonsan port on a Soviet ship, still dressed in their Red Army uniforms.

As it was decided Korea would be divided at the 38th Parallel for occupation purposes, Stalin needed a local face to run the Soviet part. Kim Il-Sung was chosen for two reasons - he spoke good Russian and then having lived almost all his life outside his homeland, had no contact with the "nationalistic" Korean communists, whom Stalin disliked and distrusted.

However, on the flip side, since Kim Il Sung had studied in China and trained in Soviet Russia, his Korean was rusty and before he could address his people in October 1945, the Soviets had to help him brush up his mother tongue!

In September 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea came into existence with Kim Il-Sung its leader - he would go on to outlive the Soviet Union himself.

Soviet-North Korean relationships were not always smooth, The invasion of South Korea was Kim Il-Sung's idea and the Soviets only agreed after they got an atom bomb of their own and China's Mao Zedong agreed to support the attack. Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinisation was also not welcomed by North Korea, like China, but Kim Il-Sung did not become a Maoist.

Relations got better under Leonid Brezhnev and North Korea was the recipient of considerable Soviet aid, termed as "loans". The end of the Soviet Union put paid to this and soon, North Korea had its devastating famine in the early 1990s.

However, under President Putin, good relations resumed - and now appear to be on an upswing, much to the West's disquiet.

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