Why Kim Jong Un cancelled his Russia visit

Why Kim Jong Un cancelled his Russia visit

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A widely anticipated event is not happening. As the Russian President’s press secretary stated for the record this week: Marshal Kim Jong Un will not be participating in forthcoming celebrations for VE day in Moscow.
This is hardly a surprising announcement, since many observers, myself included, were rather skeptical about whether the young Kim would go to Moscow in the first place. But though the skeptics were proven right, that does not stop us from speculating as to why. Kim Jong Un’s decision not to go actually made sense, but one can still ask the question as to why the North Korean government contemplated the visit at first place, or, at least, did nothing to discourage the impression that such a visit was being contemplated.MISPLACED SPECULATION
Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, mentioned ‘Korean domestic problems’ when announcing the news. In all likelihood, though, this was just a face saving excuse. However, this has itself led some observers to speculate that a coup may have happened in the absence of Kim Jong Un in the capital.
Such speculation does not look well founded, though. Of course, none of us know the domestic situation in Pyongyang so well as being able to rule out the possibility of a hostile takeover in the absence of the current CEO. It should be noted, however, that there are no signs of domestic instability. Indeed, Kim Jong Un has been playing a game of musical chairs with his subordinates, especially in the military, and this has not led to his ousting. The North Korean elite seems to need him: his Paektu blood gives him legitimacy, and if he were replaced, this could lead to instability, equally dangerous for all members of the current elite.
Another discussed possibility is that Kim Jong Un’s decision not to go to Moscow was determined by the decision of his South Korean counterpart not to go there either. Indeed, it was also recently announced that the South Korean president would not go to Moscow (obviously, bowing to U.S. pressure). Thus, there was no longer a possibility of using Moscow as a site for an inter-Korean summit.
However, such an idea also does not look all that persuasive. A short meeting on the side-lines of a major international gathering can hardly be seen as a full-scale summit, and would have been unlikely to produce dramatic results. Kim Jong Un’s Moscow trip was principally designed to send a message to Russia, not to talk to the South Koreans. Its major intention was to allow North Korea to rebalance away from economic over-reliance on Beijing.
NO SURPRISE
The cancellation does not appear too surprising if we consider Kim Jong Un’s pattern of behavior at the helm, for what is now some three years. Though he often described as a “young leader”, we should remember that three years is close to being the standard term for a president in most democracies, so this is hardly a “short time”. However, during his tenure, the young Kim has yet to hold a summit. Even when the Mongolian leader visited his country in 2013, Kim Jong Un did not bother to find time to meet with this rare guest.
It seems that Kim Jong Un has an aversion to participating in summits
So it seems that Kim Jong Un has an aversion to participating in summits. While reasons can be guessed, because we do not know much about the Young Marshal such guesses will merely be exercises in pop psychology. It is, however, quite clear that the young Kim is not enthusiastic about talking to foreign heads of state, even though he is quite happy to interact with foreigners of lesser rank (remember Dennis Rodman and his trips?).
This might appear unusual, but North Korean leaders are humans too, with their own foibles. For example, Kim Jong Il was remarkably averse to giving speeches to unprepared audiences or in front of TV cameras, and in his entire life delivered only one such speech, which lasted some 30-40 seconds.
Whatever the reason for the young Kim’s “summitphobia”, it is clear that the planned meeting in Moscow would not have been the best place or time for him to stage his diplomatic debut. This is going to be a large and noisy gathering that will be rather difficult to control, with hordes of journalists swarming ready to spot and report a single slip or mistake. Some East European leaders with little to lose with respect to North Korea, but with much to worry about voters at home, might even engage in deliberately provocative acts, snubbing Kim Jong Un as a dictator.
At any rate, everybody knows that the first summit-level encounter best be smooth and gentle. It is best held on a one-to-one basis on home soil, or at least in an environment where the media can be kept at a safe distance, and where problems can remain unnoticed. In other words, if Kim Jong Un really wants to talk to Vladimir Putin, a separate visit is a much better idea.
WORRIES AND PHOBIAS?
Nevertheless, all of this does not answer one question: why did North Koreans create the impression that Kim Jong Un’s visit was all but decided? The answer to this question cannot be known with certainty, but it is quite possible that Kim Jong Un himself for a while was not certain whether he would go or not. After all, he needs Russia as a balancer against China, and a trip to Moscow would indeed be a good idea from such a perspective. Thus, it is quite possible that Kim Jong Un agreed, or perhaps even initiated, the entire fuss over the visit himself. However, he may have quickly realized that he would have been facing not just any summit but a super-summit, and obviously succumbed to his worries and phobias.
he may have quickly realized that he would have been facing not just any summit but a super-summit, and obviously succumbed to his worries and phobias
It did not help that Kim Jong Un was, from his teenage years, raised in a rather permissive environment as a young prince and possible heir to the throne, to whom nobody would dare to object. The North Korean leader is clearly an impulsive man, quite prone to dramatic mood swings and political changes of mind. So we should not be too surprised that after some thought, he decided to cancel the trip (which had not been such a good idea from the outset).
However, perhaps we have already wasted too much time on discussing Kim Jong Un’s visit and its cancellation. The entire event (or rather for now, non-event) is quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things related to North Korean issues. The Russian side is likely to be mildly offended, but such offense will likely be forgotten soon.
The cancellation will have little impact on current moves to improve relations with Russia, though in the long run, the results of such efforts appear doubtful. The cancellation will not seen as a major problem in North Korea’s relations with the South.
(Andrei Nikolaevich Lankov is a Russian scholar of Asia and a specialist in Korean studies.)
Main picture: Wikimedia commons, NK News edit

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