Russia’s defense minister has received the full red-carpet treatment in North Korea, the country’s first known foreign visitors since its pandemic border closure.

Sergei Shoigu and his delegation were greeted by North Korean Defense Minister Kang Sun Nam, and photos carried by the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed hundreds of uniformed Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldiers lining the airport holding signs welcoming the Russians.

The Russian national anthem blared throughout Pyongyang International Airport, which was “wrapped up in a warm welcome atmosphere” to greet them, the Korean Central News Agency (KNCA) said.

What’s the big occasion?

Pyongyang on Thursday will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the signing of the July 27, 1953, Korean War armistice, which ended open hostilities and is marked as Victory Day in the North.

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Satellite imagery indicates the North has been preparing for the kind of large-scale military parade with which it typically fetes such anniversaries, with state media saying it would be marked in a “grand manner that will go down in history.”

What does this have to do with Ukraine?

Russia, a historical ally of Pyongyang, is one of a handful of nations that maintains friendly relations with the North.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been steadfast in his support for Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, including, Washington says, supplying rockets and missiles.

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“This visit will contribute to strengthening Russian-North Korean military ties and will be an important step in the development of cooperation between the two countries,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The North Koreans expressed their “full support” for the Russian army and people, “who are struggling to defend the sovereign rights and development and interests of their country,” KCNA said.

“After this event, North Korea is expected to ease its Covid restrictions while strengthening military cooperation with Moscow and Beijing,” Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, told AFP.

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“Russia is expected to ask for more artillery support from North Korea to be used in the Ukraine war, and Pyongyang is also expected to ask for Russia's cooperation on reconnaissance satellites or nuclear submarines.”

Park Won-gon, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the fact that Russia’s defense minister flew to Pyongyang while his country is at war was “very significant.”

“Even though the emergency quarantine system remains in place, Kim Jong Un may have felt the need to show something to his people at the Victory Day celebrations,” Park told AFP.

Tell me more about this “emergency quarantine system”

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

The North only resumed some trade with China last year and allowed new Beijing envoy Wang Yajun to take up his position this year. He is the first known diplomat to cross into North Korea since the border closure in January 2020.

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Russia’s ambassador to Pyongyang, Alexander Matsegora, is known to have remained in the North Korean capital throughout the pandemic, even as staff numbers at his embassy dwindled and other foreign missions closed their doors.

The inclusion of foreign guests at this year’s celebrations is a post-pandemic first and hints at new flexibility towards enforcing border controls.

Is Shoigu’s delegation alone?

No, China also has a delegation at the event, something Park said could send a "strong unified message" to the United States.

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