North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has accepted an invitation by Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend a ceremony in Moscow in May to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. This is set to be Kim's first official overseas trip as leader of his country, and follows indications from Putin that he wants closer ties between the two world leaders.
"North Korea is seeking to deepen both diplomatic and economic ties with Russia at a time when its political relationship with China remains chilly," South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.
The celebrations are intended to mark the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. The visit will be Kim's first to a foreign country since he became North Korean leader in 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
A South Korean diplomatic source, who wasn't named, noted that Kim's decision is a surprising one, as he had previously been expected to choose China as his first foreign trip. This could potentially cause tensions at the ceremony in May, where Chinese President Xi Jinping is also expected to attend.
"If Kim visits Russia and attends the ceremony, it would be an odd situation where Kim and Xi sit together at the table set by Putin. China would feel uncomfortable with such a situation," the source said.
According to Russian news agency TASS, Moscow spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the news and said that Putin and Kim will be meeting in May.
Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov previously told journalists in December: "There are first signals from Pyongyang that the North Korean leader intends to arrive in Moscow and attend the events."
While a number of other world leaders have also been invited to attend the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory, it is yet to be seen how Kim's presence will change plans.
North Korea has a highly strained relationship with the Western world, and human rights advocates have sought to have Kim stand before the International Criminal Court and face accusations of crimes against humanity committed against his own people.
The Pacific nation was also recently named by persecution watchdog group Open Doors for the 13th consecutive year as the worst country in the world for Christians.
In November, Putin expressed an interest in deepening Russia's ties with North Korea, however, arguing that it would be a way to improve regional security.
"We maintain friendly relations with one of our neighbors, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," Putin said back then in welcoming North Korea's new ambassador to Russia.
"A further deepening of political ties and trade and economic cooperation is definitely in the interests of the peoples of both countries and ensuring regional stability and security," Putin added.