North Korea’s Kim Jong Un vowed “full and unconditional support” for Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Wednesday as the two leaders isolated by the West held a summit that the U.S. warned could lead to a deal to supply ammunition for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
The meeting, which lasted over four hours at Russia’s spaceport in the Far East, underscores how the two countries’ interests are aligning: Putin is believed to be seeking one of the few things impoverished North Korea has in abundance -– stockpiles of aging ammunition and rockets for Soviet-era weapons.
Such a request would mark a role reversal from the 1950-53 Korean War, when Moscow gave weapons to support Pyongyang’s invasion of South Korea, and in the decades of Soviet sponsorship of the North that followed.
The decision to meet at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia’s most important launch center on its own soil, suggests Kim is seeking Russian help in developing military reconnaissance satellites, which he has called crucial to enhancing the threat of his nuclear-capable missiles. North Korea has repeatedly failed to put its first military spy satellite into orbit.
Putin met Kim’s limousine, brought from Pyongyang in the North Korean leader’s armored train, at the launch facility, greeting his guest with a handshake of about 40 seconds. Putin spoke of the Soviet Union’s wartime support for North Korea and said the talks would cover economic cooperation, humanitarian issues and the “situation in the region.”
Kim, in turn, pledged continued support for Moscow, making an apparent reference to the war in Ukraine.
“Russia is currently engaged in a just fight against hegemonic forces to defend its sovereign rights, security and interests,” he said. “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has always expressed its full and unconditional support for all measures taken by the Russian government, and I take this opportunity to reaffirm that we will always stand with Russia on the anti-imperialist front and the front of independence.”
North Korea may have tens of millions of aging artillery shells and rockets based on Soviet designs that could bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, analysts say.
The United States has accused North Korea of providing Russia with arms, including selling artillery shells to the Russian mercenary group Wagner. Russian and North Korean officials deny such claims.
But either buying arms from or providing rocket technology to North Korea would violate international sanctions that Russia has supported in the past.
It would both underscore and deepen Russia’s isolation in the more than 18 months after its invasion of Ukraine drew increasing sanctions that have cut off Moscow’s economy from global markets and shrunk the circle of world leaders willing to meet with Putin. Wednesday’s summit came three weeks after a suspicious plane crash killed Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who in June launched a brief rebellion that challenged Putin. The Kremlin denied it was behind the crash.
Moscow’s principal priority right now is success in Ukraine, “and it would do pretty much anything in order to achieve that.” said James Nixey, director of Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank.
“Russia possibly wants to settle in for a longer war, but it can’t meet the necessary industrial capacity,” he said, and any deal with Kim would be to ensure that immediate needs are met and any gap is filled by the North Koreans whilst Russia steps up its medium- to longer-term weapons production.”
In return, Pyongyang is likely to get food and missile technology from Moscow, “a relatively easy gift” for the Kremlin, Nixey said.
As the leaders toured a Soyuz-2 space rocket launch facility, Kim peppered a Russian space official with questions about the rockets.
Kim and Putin met together with their delegations and later one-on-one, said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. After the talks, there was an official lunch for Kim, Russian state media reported.
Putin told Russian state TV that Kim will visit two more cities in the Far East on his own after the summit, flying to Komsomolsk-on-Amur, where he will visit an aircraft plant, and then go to Vladivostok to view Russia’s Pacific Fleet, a university and other facilities.
Russia and North Korea have “lots of interesting projects” in spheres like transportation and agriculture, he said. Moscow is providing its neighbor with humanitarian aid, but there also are opportunities for “working as equals,” Putin added.
He dodged the issue, however, of their military cooperation, saying only that Russia is abiding by the sanctions prohibiting procuring weapons from Pyongyang. “There are certain restrictions, Russia is following all of them. There are things we can talk about, we’re discussing, thinking. Russia is a self-sufficient country, but there are things we can bring attention to, we’re discussing them,” he said.
Ambassador James O’Brien, head of the Office of Sanctions Coordination at the U.S. State Department, said after the meeting concluded that Russia was “scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for help because it’s having trouble sustaining its military.”
“Russia is now overtly engaging with a country that the U.N. has sanctioned. And that’s very problematic for Russia’s global position,” he told The Associated Press.
A deal between the countries would violate existing sanctions, he said, and would trigger the U.S. try to identify the individuals and the financial mechanisms used to “at least limit their ability to be effective.”
Wednesday’s meeting came hours after North Korea fired two ballistic missiles toward the sea, extending a highly provocative run in testing since 2022, as Kim used the distraction caused by war in Ukraine to accelerate his weapons development.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff didn’t say how far the missiles flew. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said they landed in waters outside the country’s exclusive economic zones and there were no reports of damage.
Official photos showed Kim was accompanied by Pak Thae Song, chairman of North Korea’s space science and technology committee, and Adm. Kim Myong Sik, who are linked with efforts to acquire spy satellites and nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarines, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
Asked whether Moscow will help North Korea build satellites, Putin was quoted by Russian media as saying “that’s why we have come here. The DPRK leader shows keen interest in rocket technology. They’re trying to develop space, too,” using the acronym for North Korea’s formal name. Asked about military cooperation, Putin said: “We will talk about all issues without a rush. There is time.”
Kim also brought Jo Chun Ryong, who heads munitions policies and had joined him on tours of factories producing artillery shells and missiles, according to South Korea.
Despite the frequency of North Korean missile firings, Wednesday’s launches were a surprise. South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said it was the first time the North launched a missile while Kim was abroad.
Kim could have ordered them to demonstrate to Putin the North’s defense posture and show he is in control of military activities even while outside the country, said Moon Seong Mook of the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
Moon, a retired South Korean brigadier general who participated in past inter-Korean military talks, said the North could have also intended to express anger at Washington after State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Putin was meeting “an international pariah to ask for assistance in a war.”
Speculation about military cooperation grew after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited North Korea in July. Kim subsequently toured his weapons factories, which experts said had the goals of encouraging modernization of North Korean weaponry and examining artillery and other supplies for export to Russia.
At their lunch, which reportedly featured regional delicacies such as Kamchatka crab dumplings and taiga lingonberries with pine nuts, Kim said he and Putin agreed to deepen their “strategic and tactical cooperation,” and that he believes Russia will achieve victory, an apparent reference to Ukraine.
“We believe with certainty that the Russian army and people will achieve a great victory in the just fight to punish the evil forces pursuing hegemonic and expansionary ambitions and create a stable environment for national development,” Kim said.
– Kim Tong-Hyung and Dasha Litvinova, AP News