If Obama Can Embrace the Saudi Monarch, Why Can't Putin Greet the North Korean Ruler?

03/30/2015 06:40 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015
JUNG YEON-JE via Getty Images

VLADIVOSTOK -- Kim Jong-un is scheduled to visit Moscow this May as one of the Kremlin's numerous guests of honor for the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. This will be his first visit abroad since he succeeded his father Kim Jong-il as the ruler of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in December 2011.

Kim Jong-un's trip to Moscow is one indication of the warming relationship between Russia and North Korea. The past year has seen a flurry of high-level exchanges between Moscow and Pyongyang. The two countries have concluded a number of agreements aimed at expanding their economic ties. To top it off, 2015 was designated official Year of Friendship between Russia and the DPRK. Russia-North Korea relations are now at their best since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the two communist countries were considered allies.

The current renaissance of Russian-North Korean friendship is due to several reasons. Ostracized and penalized by the U.S.-led West over its actions in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is seeking closer ties with the regimes that have the reputation of being anti-American. North Korea is clearly among them. Like North Korea, Russia is now a target of Western reprisals, which makes Moscow feel more empathy with Pyongyang. Furthermore, Moscow may probably want to use its increased support for North Korea as additional leverage in its dealings with the Western capitals, Tokyo and Seoul.

That said, I would argue that even without the Ukraine crisis, Russia should have invited Kim Jong-un and would have probably done so. After all, North Korea was liberated by the Soviet troops in the Second World War. It is a sovereign state that neighbors Russia, with the two countries having long-standing connections. True, the DPRK has been under the United Nations sanctions. And Russia has the legal obligation to enforce these sanctions -- which it does. However, the UN sanctions do not prohibit the head of state of North Korea from visiting foreign capitals.

Even though some of the horror stories told by defectors from the DPRK turn out to be concocted there is no denying that the North Korean regime is despotic, brutal and nasty. However, there are quite a few no less unpalatable regimes that are generally in good standing with the West as respectable international citizens. Think, for example, of some Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the countries where people are jailed, publicly flogged, and can even face execution for expressing liberal views.

North Korea has breached international law to acquire atomic capability, but its primitive nukes are meant for deterrence -- they will only be used if the DPRK's very existence is directly threatened. The North Korean regime -- a quirky mix of Korean nationalism, the Kims' personality cults and Marxism -- has long been in the purely defensive mode. The DPRK's principal goal is to survive, not to pursue any kind of territorial or ideological expansion. On this account, again, the fundamentalist Arab theocracies seem much more dangerous, serving as sources of spiritual and material support for extremist Islamist groups who would gladly destroy Western society. North Korea might have been behind the hacker attack on Sony Pictures as retaliation for a movie mocking Kim Jong-un, but can this cyber mischief be compared to the Islamist massacre at Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris as retribution for making fun of the Prophet?

North Korean bombastic propaganda may sound awful, but how about Saudi Arabia's officially approved school textbooks that call on youths to wage violent jihad? Yet Western leaders do not have qualms about appearing together with the rulers of Islamist regimes. Last January Barack Obama even cut short his trip to India to go in person to Riyadh to pay respects to the Saudi royal family after the death of King Abdullah. If so, would Vladimir Putin be any less morally justified when he meets with the North Korean autocrat?

Some hope for North Korea?

Unlike the Gulf theocracies, which seem set on promoting "pure Islam" and show little inclination to change their fundamentalist ways, there are indications that North Korea may be liberalizing, at least in the economic realm. Some change is obviously brewing inside the DPRK, including it incrementally becoming more open to the outside world. As one testimony to that, I have recently had a chance to interact with North Korean scholars who talked enthusiastically about their country's policy emphasis on special economic zones to attract foreign trade and investment.

The experience of dealing with Pyongyang shows that the more you pressure and penalize it, the more aggressive it becomes. Rather than trying to isolate North Korea, it may be just the right time to engage it as a recent report by Stanford has suggested.

Kim Jong-un's visit to Moscow, where he will be for the first time exposed to a big international gathering, may be one appropriate step to help North Korea overcome its siege mentality, reduce its feeling of insecurity and thus make the rest of the world a little bit more secure too.

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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, a North Korean man stands in front of a row of homes in the town of Kimchaek, in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, an exclamation point punctuates a long propaganda slogan in a field in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, residents of a small roadside town walk towards the main road in North Korea's North Hamgyong. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, a North Korean man pushes his bicycle to a village in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men ride in a farmer's wagon in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, North Korean people rest next to the railroad tracks in a town in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Saturday, June 21, 2014 photo North Koreans walk in front of an apartment building in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo a monument of a fist holding a bayonetted Kalashnikov rifle stands on a roadside in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, exhaust fumes, like fog, spills out of the long Hamgwan Tunnel near Hamhung in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 15, 2014 photo, an apartment block stands behind hotel room curtains on the main street in Hamhung, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 15, 2014 photo, the remains of lunch sits on a restaurant table in the city of Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 14, 2014 photo, portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are illuminated on a building side as the sun rises over Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, statues of animals playing musical instruments stand along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, walks with a pink umbrella along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, farmers walk in a rainstorm with their cattle near the town of Hyesan, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, boys play soccer in the town of Hyesan in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men share a picnic lunch and North Korean-brewed and bottled Taedonggang beer along the road in North Korea's North Hwanghae province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, a fishing boat crosses the Samsu reservoir near the town of Samsu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a deer's hoof used as a door handle, hangs from the front door of the home where North Koreans say the late leader Kim Jong Il was born around Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man holds a hand drawn map of the areas around Mt. Paektu as he and colleagues drive in Samjiyon in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man sits by a cooking fire he built to roast potatoes and chicken in the town of Samjiyon, in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man takes shelter in the rain next to long propaganda billboards in the town of Samjiyon in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 18, 2014 photo, the Associated Press vehicle climbs the slopes of Mount Paektu in North Korea's in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In June 18, 2014 photo, a boulder lies on a path near the peak of Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. North Koreans venerate Mount Paektu for its natural beauty, but more importantly because it is considered the home of the North Korean revolution. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, smoke stacks of a factories stand behind a compound wall along a street in the city of Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Thursday, June 19, 2014 photo, North Korean women sit in their small food stalls in front of apartment blocks on the outskirts of Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, a hotel employee walks in the lobby of a hotel that accommodates foreign visitors in Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a row of bicycles are parked next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a group of young North Koreans enjoys a picnic on the beach in Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a man works on his car as others sit next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)