Senior Russia, China officials visit North Korea

Chinese Communist Party group headed by Politburo member Li Hongzhong are in Pyongyang to attend the 70th anniversary of the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

The two delegations will take part in the celebration of the 70th anniversary of “Victory Day” on Thursday in Pyongyang, an event that state media said will be marked in a “grand manner that will go down in history”.

Satellite imagery indicates North Korea has been preparing for the kind of large-scale military parade with which it typically fetes such anniversaries. But the inclusion of Chinese and Russian guests this year is a post-pandemic first, which hints at new flexibility towards enforcing border controls.

North Korea has been under a rigid self-imposed coronavirus blockade since early 2020 to protect itself from COVID-19, which has prevented even its own nationals from entering the country.

Russia’s defence ministry announced Shoigu’s visit “will help strengthen Russian-North Korean military ties and will be an important stage in the development of cooperation between the two countries”.

It posted a short video on its Telegram channel showing Shoigu being greeted by a North Korean military official on a red carpet at an airport’s tarmac.

A red banner with a sign saying, “Welcome, Comrade Defence Minister of the Russian Federation Sergei Shoigu!” in Korean and Russian stood behind a line of saluting soldiers.

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

North Korea has conducted three separate rounds of missile firings since last week, apparently in protest of the US 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 about 100 missiles as leader Kim Jong Un exploits the distraction created by Russia’s war on Ukraine to accelerate the expansion of his country’s nuclear and ballistic missiles programme.

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

Russia and China, meanwhile, have been thwarting US efforts to strengthen United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea over its flurry of missile tests.

China asserted on Monday that it “strictly” implements UN sanctions on North Korea, reacting to a letter from the Group of Seven, the European Union and others that urged Beijing to stop Pyongyang from evading the measures by using Chinese waters.

Little is known about discreet contacts between the two nations but Beijing has long been committed to preventing the collapse of North Korea’s three-generation-old Kim regime.

China’s exports to North Korea in June were eight times higher than a year before when the secretive state was reporting tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases per day and had shut its border.

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