Why Putin’s hosting Kim Jong Un

Updated 2:08 AM EDT, Sun March 22, 2015
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(CNN) —  

What does a world leader who’s been shunned by the international community and strained relations with every major global power do to show that he still has some friends?

Invite 26 leaders of nations, not all of them famous for democracy or transparency, to a grandiose celebration for the 70th anniversary of World War II. And include a leader ostracized by almost the entire world – North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

That, at least, appears to be the motivation behind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s WWII celebration next month.

Welcome to the Russian leader’s world of “screw you” policy, as North Korea expert Nicholas Eberstadt put it.

While Putin has some diplomatic ground to gain by inviting the pariah leader, mostly it’s an invite sent out of pique.

“Spite is an underestimated quality in international relations,” he said. “Russia stood to gain basically nothing from playing the Kim Jong Un card. It was sort of a ‘screw you’ policy.”

Putin’s ‘screw you’ policy

This particular “screw you” policy has been underway since last year, when Russia moved to bolster ties with North Korea after Western nations, led by the United States, increased their military presence in Putin’s neighborhood in response to the Russian leader’s move to annex Crimea.

President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are all boycotting Putin’s event over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But a Russian official said Thursday that the notoriously reclusive head of the “hermit kingdom” would be making his first official diplomatic outing to attend the event next month.

The invite has practical implications, as Russia’s move to build stronger ties with North Korea could pay positive economic dividends for both nations. Moscow’s “Year of Friendship” with Pyongyang is set to include stronger financial cooperation between the two countries, as well as trade and investment deals.

And theoretically, North Korea could offer Russia a useful trade route or, sometime in the future, a path for an oil pipeline. Russia has a vested interest in preventing North Korea from becoming a nuclear power and could possibly wield more influence after building a closer relationship. And Putin has also been jockeying to play a bigger role in the Asian sphere writ large.

But the symbolism of the invitation is likely just as important.

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