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Putin to visit North Korea and Vietnam

New buildings skyline in Changjon area, Pyongan Province, Pyongyang, North Korea

New buildings skyline in Changjon area, Pyongan Province, Pyongyang, North Korea

Eric Lafforgue via Reuters

Russian state media reported Monday that President Vladimir Putin will travel to North Korea and Vietnam in the coming weeks as Moscow tries to build influence among middle powers in Asia.

This will be Putin’s first trip to Pyongyang in 24 years, and he’ll find the city much changed. In 2000, the massive unfinished Ryugyong Hotel loomed skeletally over Stalinist-era apartment blocks, in an almost-too-on-the-nose metaphor for the country’s paranoid and feeble state two years after the 1994-1998 mass famine. Putin was in town to officially reestablish relations with North Korea, which had ruptured following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, the DPRK is no less totalitarian, but the economy can now support a facade of prosperity in Pyongyang — including cladding for that still-empty hotel, and some high-rises nearby to soften the landscape. It also now has nuclear weapons to protect itself from the US and artillery shells Russia needs in Ukraine, meaning Putin has to show up with something a little more high-tech in hand.

He’s previously pledged to help North Korea put spy satellites in orbit, which it accomplished for the first time last year. But a subsequent launch this May, which South Korean intelligence believes was aided by Russian technicians, exploded shortly after takeoff. Nonetheless, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un says he wants to launch three more spy satellites this year, and we have our eye out for any indication of where the cooperation might go from here.

The Vietnam leg is less juicy by comparison. Hanoi and Moscow have a tight military relationship stretching back to the early Cold War, but Vietnam has recently been courting better relations with the US to offset threats from China. We’re expecting a carefully choreographed visit with little that could rock the boat.


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