Putin Awards Kim Jong Un World War Two Commemorative Medal Days After Dictator Re-Emerges From Public Absence

Russia has awarded North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a World War Two anniversary medal, in recognition of his nation's efforts to commemorate Soviet soldiers who died during the liberation of the Korean peninsula from Japanese control in 1945.

The Russian ambassador to North Korea presented the medal to North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho at a ceremony on Tuesday at the Mansudae Palace of Congress, Pyongyang. Kim was not present to receive the honor, which came days after he re-emerged from a 20-day public absence that prompted speculation that he might be dead.

Ambassador Alexander Matsegora presented the "75 years of Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945" medal to North Korean officials "in accordance with the Russian president's decree," according to the Russian embassy's Facebook page.

The embassy lauded Kim's "major personal contribution to commemorating Soviet citizens who perished and were buried in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and for caring about preserving burial sites and memorials of Soviet warriors in the DPRK."

Following the ceremony, the Russian and North Korean diplomats met to discuss bilateral relations. During the conversation, "they confirmed the commitment to continue active efforts to consistently implement the agreements reached by the leaders of the two countries in Vladivostok in April 2019, aimed at further developing and strengthening multifaceted Russian-Korean cooperation," the embassy said.

Until last week, speculation was rife that North Korea was on the verge of a destabilizing power of transition. In April, multiple reports claimed that Kim had undergone heart surgery but suffered complications, resulting in a vegetative state or even death.

The 36-year-old dictator—obese and reportedly a heavy smoker and drinker—missed the April 15 Day of the Sun celebrations, an important event in the North Korea calendar to honor national founder and Kim's grandfather Kim Il Sung. This first raised speculation that something may be amiss.

U.S. and South Korean intelligence reports, however, suggested that Kim was in normal health and that there were no signs of an imminent power transition or vacuum. Later reports suggested that Kim may have retreated to a coastal villa near the eastern city of Wonsan to avoid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Kim re-appeared in public on Friday at a visit to a fertilizer plant in Sunchon, a town some 28 miles north of Pyongyang, according to the Yonhap News Agency.

Russia enjoys warmer relations with North Korea than most nations. Kim visited Russia in 2019 and met with President Vladimir Putin and other officials in the Pacific city of Vladivostok. During the two-hour meeting, the leaders vowed to improve bilateral ties and Putin offered to help break the deadlock in U.S.-North Korean denuclearization negotiations.

The Russian embassy said there are 11 mass graves and 345 individual graves in North Korea dating from World War Two, in which 1,375 Soviet troops are buried. More than 4,700 Soviet soldiers died during the liberation of Korea and are honored at multiple sites, including the Liberation Monument in Pyongyang.

After the Axis powers were defeated in 1945, the Soviet regime set up a communist government in Pyongyang headed by Kim Il Sung. The new state controlled the northern half of the Korean peninsula, with a U.S.-allied state set up to govern the south. Moscow provided significant economic, military and diplomatic support to Pyongyang throughout the Cold War.

Kim Jong Un, North KOrea, Vladimir Putin
People watch a screen showing a broadcast of the completion ceremony of the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Mirae Scientists Street in Pyongyang on May 2, 2020. KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images/Getty