North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has arrived in the Russian Far East for talks that the US and many analysts say will focus on arms for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The Kremlin said Kim would meet with President Vladimir Putin for a full-scale visit to strengthen ties, despite warnings from Washington they should not agree on an arms deal.
Kim left Pyongyang on Sunday on his private train on his first trip abroad for four years, along with top arms industry and military officials, plus the foreign minister, according to North Korea’s state media.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency and Russia’s Interfax reported on Tuesday that a train carrying Kim had arrived at Khasan, the main rail gateway to Russia’s Far East from North Korea.
Putin at economic forum in Vladivostok
Putin was in Vladivostok on Tuesday, where he attended the Eastern Economic Forum, which runs through till Wednesday.
His meetings with Kim were expected to be on the sidelines of the forum, although there has been no confirmation of the location or whether Kim would attend the event.
“It will be a full-fledged visit,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “There will be negotiations between two delegations, and after that, if necessary, the leaders will continue their communication in a one-on-one format.”
US officials, who first said the visit was imminent, said that arms talks between Russia and North Korea were actively advancing and that Kim and Putin are likely to discuss providing Russia with weapons for the war in Ukraine.
Russia is keen to secure artillery shells and anti-tank missiles from North Korea, while Kim is anxious to get help from the Kremlin on technology for satellites and nuclear-powered submarines, plus food for his people, according to officials who spoke to the New York Times.
Russia running out of weapons, munitions
“After 18 months of war in Ukraine, the Kremlin is reportedly in the market for weapons due to depleted stockpiles and large quantities of faulty munitions,” Eurasia Group said in a note on Tuesday.
“Western sanctions have made it harder for Russian arms companies to import critical parts to make new weapons. The Kremlin has already turned to fellow rogue friend Iran for assistance.”
Pyongyang had long helped sanction-hit states like Syria and Myanmar to skirt sanctions by selling them arms, while North Korea reportedly wanted grain and cheap oil, plus access to advanced rocket technology for Kim’s nuclear programme, Eurasia Group said.
Pyongyang has plenty of rockets, ammunition and artillery shells to offer the Kremlin, the group said, citing experts.
But the North and Moscow have both denied arms would be supplied to Russia.
North Korea’s KCNA state news agency said Kim was accompanied by leading officials of the ruling Workers’ Party, government and armed forces.
Washington and its allies have been voicing concern at recent signs of closer military cooperation between Russia and the nuclear-armed North. It will be Kim’s second summit with Putin, after they met in 2019.
Accompanied by defence industry and military officials
The North Korean delegation includes prominent members of the party who handle defence industry and military affairs, including Munitions Industry Department director Jo Chun Ryong, an analyst said, which suggests the visit will focus on defence industry cooperation.
“The presence of Jo Chun Ryong indicates that North Korea and Russia will conclude some type of agreement for munitions purchases,” Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said.
Photos released by state media showed military honour guards and crowds of people in dark suits and colourful dresses waving flowers and flags as Kim boarded the dark-green train, which is believed to be armoured and carry other specialised equipment.
On Monday, as the train was bound for the Russian border, Washington renewed its warnings to Pyongyang not to sell arms to Russia that could be used in the Ukraine war.
“We urge the DPRK to abide by the public commitments that Pyongyang has made to not provide or sell arms to Russia,” Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said.
DPRK is short for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Arms transfers would violate UNSC resolutions
The US State Department said any transfer of arms from North Korea to Russia would violate multiple UN Security Council resolutions, which ban any arms transactions with North Korea.
“We, of course, have aggressively enforced our sanctions against entities that fund Russia’s war effort, and we will continue to enforce those sanctions and will not hesitate to impose new sanctions appropriately,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters.
North Korea is one of the few countries to have openly supported Russia since the invasion of Ukraine last year, and Putin pledged last week to “expand bilateral ties in all respects in a planned way by pooling efforts”.
In a striking display of those deepening ties, Kim gave a personal tour of an arms exhibition for Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu when he visited Pyongyang in July, and they stood together to watch a military parade that featured banned ballistic missiles.
Russia had voted, along with China, to approve UN Security Council resolutions as late as 2017 punishing North Korea for launching ballistic missiles and conducting underground nuclear tests.
Peskov said the main topic of the talks by Putin and Kim would be bilateral relations between the neighbouring countries.
“We will continue to strengthen our friendship,” Peskov said.
- Reuters with additional reporting and editing by Jim Pollard
NOTE: Further details were added to this report on Sept 12, 2023.