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Chinese and Russian officials to join North Korean commemorations of Korean War armistice

By AP

Published : July 26, 2023 - 22:36

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A handout photo made available by the Russian Defence Ministry shows Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (3-L) attending a meeting with North Korea's Defence Minister General Kang Sun-nam (3-R) in Pyongyang, North Korea on Wednesday. (Russian Defense Ministry) A handout photo made available by the Russian Defence Ministry shows Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (3-L) attending a meeting with North Korea's Defence Minister General Kang Sun-nam (3-R) in Pyongyang, North Korea on Wednesday. (Russian Defense Ministry)

Russia and China are sending government delegations to North Korea this week for events marking the 70th anniversary of the armistice that halted fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War.

The visits suggest North Korea is further opening up after years of pandemic isolation and is eager to showcase its partnerships with authoritarian neighbors in the face of deepening nuclear tensions with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

North Korea’s state media said Wednesday that a Russian delegation led by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in Pyongyang Tuesday evening, where they were greeted by senior North Korean officials including Defense Minister Kang Sun Nam.

Russia's Defense Ministry said in a statement that Shoigu later held a meeting with Kang for talks that he said would “help strengthen cooperation between our defense departments.” Video footage from Russian media showed Shoigu and other Russian delegates laying wreaths at a Soviet war monument in Pyongyang and saluting the city's statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, respectively the grandfather and father of current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

China’s ruling Communist Party is also sending a midlevel official, Li Hongzhong, in hopes of restoring exchanges between the allies.

North Korea has been preparing huge celebrations of the anniversary that are likely to be capped off by a military parade in the capital, Pyongyang, where Kim Jong Un could showcase his most powerful, nuclear-capable missiles designed to target neighboring rivals and the US.

Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said that Kim and his top defense and foreign policy officials visited two cemeteries, including one for Chinese troops who died while fighting alongside North Korea during the war.

Kim expressed gratitude for the Chinese soldiers who dedicated their lives to repel imperialist aggression, calling them “martyrs" who would be "immortal in the hearts of the Korean people."

North Korea launched the Korean War, an unsuccessful attempt to conquer its southern rival. No peace treaty ending the conflict has ever been signed, and the border between the Koreas remains one of the most tense in the world. The North still celebrates the armistice as a victory in the “Grand Fatherland Liberation War.”

The conflict brought in forces from the newly created People’s Republic of China, aided by the then Soviet air force, while South Korea, the U.S. and troops from various countries under the direction of the United Nations battled to repulse the invasion.

The visits by Russian and Chinese delegations mark only the second known time foreign government officials were invited to enter North Korea since the start of the pandemic, following the arrival of China's ambassador to Pyongyang, Wang Yajun, in March, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs.

North Korea had spent the first two years of the pandemic in a self-imposed lockdown to shield its poor health care system. But since last year, the country has gradually reopened trade with China to improve its dismal economy.

“For now, it’s premature to say whether or not North Korea further opens its borders in the future, but considering their measures to ease virus controls and signs that they are preparing to send athletes to international sporting events again, it's possibly only a matter of time,” the South Korean ministry said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The anniversary comes during a time of heightened tensions in the region as the pace of both North Korea’s weapons tests and U.S. military exercises with South Korea have intensified in a tit-for-tat cycle.

Some experts say North Korea might ramp up its weapons tests around the anniversary of the armistice on Thursday. North Korea has conducted three separate rounds of missile firings since last week, apparently in protest of the United States sending naval vessels — including a nuclear-armed submarine — to South Korea in a show of force.

Since the start of 2022, North Korea has test-fired around 100 missiles as Kim exploits the distraction created by Russia’s war on Ukraine to accelerate the expansion of the nuclear-capable weapons he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.

North Korea has also been aligning with Russia over the war in Ukraine , insisting that the “hegemonic policy” of the US-led West has forced Moscow to take military action to protect its security interests. The Biden administration has accused North Korea of providing arms to Russia to aid its fighting in Ukraine, although the North has denied the claim .

Both Moscow and Beijing have been thwarting US efforts to strengthen UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea over its flurry of missile tests.

When asked whether Washington had any concerns about China and Russia showing support for North Korea with the visits, Vedant Patel, deputy spokesperson at the U.S. State Department, called for Beijing and Moscow to play a more constructive role in defusing tensions and bringing Pyongyang back to dialogue.

“They can use their influence over (North Korea) to encourage them to refrain from threatening, unlawful behavior — behavior that will not just incite tensions in the immediate region but also the region broadly,” he said.

Li is a member of the party’s high-level Politburo and a deputy chairperson of the ceremonial parliament, giving him national office, but not the level of status that would convey a full-bore expression of Chinese backing for North Korea at an ambiguous time in relations.

China was invited to send a “high-level delegation” to attend commemorative activities in North Korea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a daily briefing Tuesday.

“We believe the visit will be conducive to promoting the sound and stable development of (bilateral) relations, contributing to regional peace and stability, and creating conditions for a political settlement of the (Korean) peninsula issue,” Mao said.

China has joined UN sanctions against North Korea over its missile and nuclear programs but remains its most important economic and political ally. Little is known about discreet contacts between the two, but Beijing has been long committed to preventing the collapse of North Korea’s three-generation-old Kim governments.

Dangerous and uncertain factors resulting from a collapse could include large numbers of refugees crossing into China, a scramble for control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the sudden presence of South Korean and American troops along China’s border.

Kim has visited China in past years, while Chinese leader Xi Jinping traveled to the North in 2019 in what was seen as partly an effort to use their ties to leverage concessions from the U.S. and its allies on their security arrangements in the region.

Such visits came to a halt as an increasingly isolated and impoverished North Korea closed its borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (AP)