Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, center, is welcomed by Korean People s Army members at the Pyongyang International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea Tuesday, July 25, 2023. AP
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.
The Russian national anthem blared throughout Pyongyang International Airport, which was "wrapped up in a warm welcome atmosphere" to greet Moscow's Sergei Shoigu and his delegation Tuesday evening, the Korean Central News Agency said.
"Flags of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation were fluttering at the flagstaffs and the guards of honor of the Korean People's Army (KPA) lined up at the station before the terminal," KCNA said.
Shoigu was greeted by North Korean Defence Minister Kang Sun Nam, and photos carried by the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed hundreds of uniformed KPA soldiers lining the airport holding signs welcoming the Russians.
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 added.
Russia, a historic ally of North Korea, is one of a handful of nations with which it maintains friendly relations.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been steadfast in his support for Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, including, Washington says, supplying rockets and missiles.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the visit was unlikely to result in any arms deals or diplomatic advances, calling it "a symbolic show of solidarity on a war anniversary".
The fact that Russia's defence minister flew to Pyongyang while his country is at war was "very significant", said Park Won-gon, another professor at Ewha University.
"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.
For the Chinese and Russians, their presence could send a "strong unified message" to the United States, he added.
Change in border policy?
Satellite imagery indicates North Korea has been preparing for the kind of large-scale military parade with which it typically fetes such anniversaries.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that there were "clear signs" of preparations for a midnight parade at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang in recent days, citing multiple unnamed government sources.
The inclusion of foreign guests at this year's celebrations is a post-pandemic first and hints at new flexibility towards enforcing border controls.
China also said it would send a delegation led by Politburo member Li Hongzhong that was due to arrive in Pyongyang later Wednesday, suggesting they would not be required to undergo an extensive quarantine ahead of the Thursday anniversary event.
North Korea has been under a rigid self-imposed blockade since early 2020 to protect itself from Covid-19, preventing even its own nationals from entering the country.
It 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.
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.