By Mark Thompson
December 23, 2014

It’s possible to see North Korea’s alleged cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment as little more than high schoolers intercepting notes sent from desk to desk during class when the teacher wasn’t looking.

But geo-strategically, the schoolhouse drama ratcheted up Monday, when the Russians confirmed that they have invited Kim Jong Un to Moscow next May—before the North Korean leader meets with the leadership of China, his country’s historic benefactor.

Russian presidential aide Yury Ushakov said that Kim has been invited to Russia’s 70th anniversary celebrating the end of World War II. “Invitations have been sent to many leaders of countries, including Kim Jong Un,” he told reporters. “Signals have been received that he means to come to Moscow and participate in the celebrations.”

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All the international chest-thumping over the U.S. claim that North Korea hacked into Sony’s computers, destroying data and posting embarrassing revelations about the company’s internal workings for all the world to read, misses a bigger point: Beijing is not happy with Kim Jong Un, and Moscow’s move on the Outstanding Leader highlights just how far he has fallen in Beijing’s esteem.

Kim has counted on financial support from China to keep his impoverished nation alive. With the price of oil collapsing, there’s little chance that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be able to offer much financial aid to Pyongyang.

In a further example of warming ties, the official North Korean news agency on Sunday hailed the publication of Kim’s Let Us Brilliantly Accomplish the Revolutionary Cause of Juche, Holding Kim Jong Il in High Esteem as the Eternal General Secretary of Our Party in Russia. “Juche” is Korean for self-reliance, a mantra of Kim Jong Il, the father of the current North Korean leader.

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Kim has never visited a foreign country since taking over North Korea following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011. China would be the natural place for his debut on the world stage, given the alliance between the two nations that dates back more than a half-century to the Korean War.

But strains between the two longtime allies began to show following missile and nuclear-weapons tests, including a 2013 atomic blast after Kim assumed command. The Chinese government summoned Pyongyang’s ambassador to the foreign ministry in Beijing to decry that test, and reduced energy shipments to North Korea.

Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang remain chilly. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited South Korea in July, the first time that a Chinese leader visited Seoul before Pyongyang. “The Chinese are so displeased with Kim’s leadership style and actions that Chinese President Xi has visited Seoul and hosted South Korean president Park in Beijing, but Xi has not visited Pyongyang and has not invited Kim to Beijing,” former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst John McCreary wrote Monday. “Last week in Beijing, President Xi met the speaker of the South Korean national assembly, apparently to emphasize Chinese preferences.”

Adding to the pressure, China is investigating North Korea’s possible role in the Sony hack, Bloomberg reported Monday.

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Things could get dicey in Moscow if Kim accepts Putin’s invite. In another flashback to high school, Moscow also has invited South Korean President Park Geun-hye to the anniversary celebration. If both attend, it could lead to the first meeting between the two Korean leaders.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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