North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived in Russia on Tuesday for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Washington said could lead to an arms sales deal 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 only said that he would soon visit the Vostochny cosmodrome, a thousand km as the crow flies from Vladivostok, but refused to say what he plans to do there.
“I have a suitable 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, an ally of kyiv. 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.