Why Putin’s hosting Kim Jong Un?

By Alexandra Jaffe

What does a world leader who’s been shunned by the international community and strained relations with every major global power do to show that he still has some friends?

Invite 26 leaders of nations, not all of them famous for democracy or transparency, to a grandiose celebration for the 70th anniversary of World War II. And include a leader ostracized by almost the entire world — North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

That, at least, appears to be the motivation behind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s WWII celebration next month.

Welcome to the Russian leader’s world of “screw you” policy, as North Korea expert Nicholas Eberstadt put it. While Putin has some diplomatic ground to gain by inviting the pariah leader, mostly it’s an invite sent out of pique.

“Spite is an underestimated quality in international relations,” he said. “Russia stood to gain basically nothing from playing the Kim Jong Un card. It was sort of a ‘screw you’ policy.”

This particular “screw you” policy has been underway since last year, when Russia moved to bolster ties with North Korea after Western nations, led by the United States, increased their military presence in Putin’s neighborhood in response to the Russian leader’s move to annex Crimea.

US President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are all boycotting Putin’s event over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But a Russian official said Thursday that the notoriously reclusive head of the “hermit kingdom” would be making his first official diplomatic outing to attend the event next month.

The invite has practical implications, as Russia’s move to build stronger ties with North Korea could pay positive economic dividends for both nations. Moscow’s “Year of Friendship” with Pyongyang is set to include stronger financial cooperation between the two countries, as well as trade and investment deals.

And theoretically, North Korea could offer Russia a useful trade route or, sometime in the future, a path for an oil pipeline. Russia has a vested interest in preventing North Korea from becoming a nuclear power and could possibly wield more influence after building a closer relationship. And Putin has also been jockeying to play a bigger role in the Asian sphere writ large.

But the symbolism of the invitation is likely just as important.

Richard Weitz, a Russia expert with the Hudson Institute, said the WWII celebration is intended to show off the little clout that Putin still holds on the international stage.

“He means to reaffirm Moscow’s global role, to send a message that Moscow’s got an important role, particularly in Asia,” he said.

An alliance with Russia could pay huge dividends for North Korea, which is desperate for allies at the United Nations and another economic partner to balance out their historical reliance on China.

“What has not been clear is just how much oomph the Kremlin is going to put behind this new warming policy with Pyongyang,” Eberstadt noted.

Indeed, little has yet materialized. And Chris Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, was skeptical that anything would.

“I don’t think the Russians are any more enthusiastic about the North Koreans than we are,” said Hill, now dean of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. “It’s their way of putting their finger in our eye.”

The United State has sought to isolate North Korea for its nuclear weapons program, human rights abuses and other policies that go against American Interests in the region. Western leaders have joined the U.S. in its effort, which has included escalating sanctions against the regime in hopes of pressuring the nation to abandon its nuclear program and improve conditions for its citizens.

This article is originally published in CNN.

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