(Moscow) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived in Russia on Tuesday for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin which Washington said could lead to an arms sale agreement to support the Russian military operation in Ukraine.
The two men must notably talk about “sensitive subjects” in the coming days, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov, quoted by the Russian agency Ria Novosti.
Departing Pyongyang on Sunday evening aboard an armored train, Kim Jong-un is making his first trip abroad since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For his last trip abroad, he had already met Mr. Putin in Vladivostok in 2019.
Mr. Kim is expected to meet him in the coming days somewhere in the Russian Far East. Moscow did not specify the date or location of the meeting.
Mr. Putin, who is currently in Vladivostok for an annual economic forum that ends Wednesday, was not asked about the North Korean leader’s visit, despite a lengthy question-and-answer session.
The Russian president said only that he would soon visit the Vostochny cosmodrome, a thousand kilometers as the crow flies from Vladivostok, but refused to say what he plans to do there.
“I have an adequate program there, when I get there, you will know,” he simply declared.
His spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, told Russian media that the two leaders were going to discuss “sensitive” subjects without paying attention to “the warnings” from the United States.
Washington fears that Moscow will obtain weapons for its military operations in Ukraine from North Korea, itself under sanctions because of its nuclear and missile programs.
“In building our relations with our neighbors, including North Korea, what is important for us is the interests of our two countries, and not warnings from Washington,” Peskov said.
Mr. Kim’s armored train entered Russia and is traveling in the Russian Littoral region, bordering North Korea, according to Russian media. Images from Ria Novosti show the convoy with dark green wagons pulled by a Russian locomotive.
According to the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, at least 20 hours are needed to connect Pyongyang and Vladivostok, assuming that Mr. Kim’s special, armored and very heavy train travels at around 60 km/h.
The North Korean leader, whose trips abroad are very rare, “left by train on Sunday afternoon to visit the Russian Federation,” the official KCNA agency announced on Tuesday.
He is accompanied by senior military officials, including his defense chief, his foreign minister and those responsible for weapons production and space technology, according to state media.
According to experts, the meeting between MM. Putin and Kim could focus on an arms deal, as Mr. Putin is said to be seeking to acquire anti-tank shells and missiles.
For its part, Pyongyang is reportedly seeking cutting-edge technology for nuclear-powered satellites and submarines, as well as food aid.
Washington derided this meeting, seeing it as a sign that Mr. Putin was “begging” for help in carrying out his operations in Ukraine. For Paris, Kim’s trip to Russia is the visible “mark” of Moscow’s isolation.
Russia and North Korea have historical ties. Kim Jong-un has repeatedly expressed his support for the conflict in Ukraine to Moscow.
For Andrei Lankov, an expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, a Putin-Kim summit is part of “friendly diplomatic blackmail” by Moscow towards Seoul, because Russia wants to dissuade the South Koreans from supplying weapons to Ukraine .
Seoul is a major exporter of military equipment and has sold a number of weapons to Poland, Kyiv’s ally. But its policy is never to supply weapons to parties engaged in armed conflicts.
“The main concern of the Russian government at the moment is a possible delivery of South Korean munitions to Ukraine, not just one delivery, but many deliveries,” Lankov continued, however.
“North Korea has the munitions Putin needs for his illegal war in Ukraine and Moscow has the underwater, ballistic and satellite technologies that can help Pyongyang overcome the engineering challenges imposed by economic sanctions,” observes de his side Leif-Eric Easley, professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
What we know about ties between North Korea and Russia
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who rarely leaves his country, is in Russia for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Washington says could lead to an arms sales deal in support of the Russian invasion in Ukraine.
Pyongyang, subject to international sanctions for its nuclear weapons program, has regularly denied supplying weapons to Russia, but could soon change this position, according to experts.
What can North Korea offer Russia?
At the beginning of September, Washington assured that Pyongyang, despite its denials, had supplied infantry rockets and missiles to Russia in 2022, intended for the private paramilitary group Wagner.
For Joseph Dempsey, researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Moscow would be mainly interested in artillery shells.
“North Korea likely holds the largest stockpiles of Soviet-era artillery shells, which could be used to replenish Russian stocks depleted by the war in Ukraine,” he told AFP.
Whatever the outcome of the summit, “the new Cold War structure between South Korea, the United States and Japan against North Korea, China and Russia will strengthen,” Yang told AFP Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
What does North Korea want in return?
For analysts, Russia has everything North Korea needs.
“Russia is a food exporting country, a fertilizer exporter, an energy exporter,” notes Cho Han-bum, researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Pyongyang could also, he said, seek the transfer of “key technologies, know-how and manufacturing capacity to advance North Korea’s arms industry.”
A UN report in 2022 highlighted the role of a North Korean diplomat in Moscow in procuring ballistic missile technology and even attempting to obtain three tons of steel for the North Korean submarine program .
Pyongyang could also gain diplomatic benefits from a possible agreement that would send a message to China.
“Since the Cold War, North Korea has always practiced ‘pendulum diplomacy’ between China and the Soviet Union,” observes Park Won-gon, a professor at Ewha University.
What have the previous summits brought?
A historic ally of North Korea, Russia has been a major supporter of this reclusive country since its creation 75 years ago.
But the Soviet Union cut funding when Pyongyang began seeking reconciliation with Seoul in the 1980s. And its fall in 1991 hit North Korea hard.
In 2000, the first summit between the Russian Federation and North Korea resulted in a joint declaration for economic cooperation and diplomatic exchanges.
The signing of an agreement between Mr. Putin and Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011, Mr. Kim’s father and predecessor, revives relations.
Kim Jong-un, then seeking support in the face of the nuclear impasse with Washington, made his first official visit to Russia in 2019. No joint press release was published.
But Mr. Kim strongly supports the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including, according to Washington, by supplying rockets and missiles.
In July, Mr. Putin praised North Korea for its “firm support for the special military operation against Ukraine” in a speech read in Pyongyang by his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
What would a Pyongyang-Moscow agreement mean?
The White House warned Pyongyang last week against selling arms to Russia in support of its war in Ukraine. This will not improve North Korea’s “image” and “they will pay the price in the international community,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said.
Disregarding the warning, Mr. Kim left for Russia on Sunday, according to KCNA, the official North Korean news agency. He was accompanied by key military officials, including those responsible for arms production and space technology.
Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, told AFP that if Pyongyang steps up military cooperation with Moscow, “there would be an increased likelihood of protracted conflict in Ukraine.”
As a reward for its assistance to Moscow, “the development of North Korea’s nuclear submarines and reconnaissance satellites could advance at a faster pace.”
If Moscow and Pyongyang do indeed engage in arms shipments, their location will be “the responsibility of the international community”. If they are shells, Pyongyang “could transport them by train to Moscow,” he notes.