TOKYO – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is looking increasingly likely to visit Russia in his first trip abroad since taking power three years ago, giving the world an unprecedented chance to see him at work on the international stage.
Moscow has invited many world leaders — including Kim and the presidents of China and South Korea — to celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany, which will include a massive parade on Red Square.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said last month the Kremlin had received the "first signals from Pyongyang" that the North Korean leader is planning to attend the May 9 festivities. South Korean media quoted anonymous sources in Beijing this week as saying that Kim is likely to accept. U.S. President Barack Obama has reportedly decided to stay home, so that awkwardness has apparently been averted.
North Korea has not officially commented on the invitation and still has ample time to decline it.
But choosing Moscow for his first overseas trip would be a strong indication of the direction Kim wants to take his country. It would also provide the outside world with a rare look at a man who, while revered at the center of an intense cult of personality at home, is one of the biggest mysteries in international politics.
In the three years since he assumed power, Kim has shown a style of leadership devotedly in line with the policies of his father, Kim Jong Il and — despite a monthlong absence last year that set North Korea watchers into a frenzy of speculation about his health — adhered to the tried-and-true "field guidance" photo opportunities at farms, factories and military bases that are a staple way of presenting North Korea's hands-on form of leadership.
He has also inserted a personal touch.
Unlike his reclusive father, who rarely spoke in public, Kim has revived the custom started by his charismatic grandfather, North Korea's "eternal president" Kim Il Sung, of delivering speeches on New Year's Day. He often makes public appearances with his photogenic wife and does not seem to share his predecessors' reported fear of flying — the state-run media recently showed him taking the controls of an airplane in flight.
Though Kim Il Sung enjoyed the strong support of the Soviet Union, its collapse in 1991 drove North Korea and China much closer. Kim Jong Il visited China seven times, always by train, including three visits between 2010 and his death in 2011.
Today, North Korea depends heavily on China for economic support and backing in international forums such as the United Nations to oppose sanctions over its human rights situation and nuclear weapons program. But, increasingly wary of its reliance on Beijing, Pyongyang has been pushing hard to improve ties with Russia as a counterbalance.
Moscow, for its part, is eager to improve its position in Asia amid frictions with the West.
Putin was the first Soviet or Russian leader to visit North Korea — he spent two days in Pyongyang in 2000 — and Moscow's ties with North Korea have improved substantially under his watch, especially on the economic front. Russia remains concerned about North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, but while its efforts to dissuade Pyongyang from continuing them have had little visible effect it has gone ahead with trying to improve overall relations.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has yet to visit Pyongyang. He went to Seoul last July.
Kim, who studied in Switzerland for two years when he was a boy and may have visited China when his father was still alive, has dropped other hints that with the traditional mourning period for Kim Jong Il past he wants to take a higher diplomatic profile.
With major celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II planned in North Korea as well, and increased talk about the need to seek reunification of the Korean Peninsula, he suggested in his New Year's address that he is open to a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Park says she is willing to meet Kim but stresses North Korea must take steps toward ending its nuclear weapons program for any discussions to be productive.
She has yet to decide whether to attend the May celebration, according to her spokeswoman, Yoo Myung-hee.