North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Russia amid US warnings not to sell arms

September 12, 2023 - 4:56 PM
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un departs Pyongyang, North Korea, to visit Russia, September 10, 2023, in this image released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on September 12, 2023. (KCNA via Reuters)

SEOUL/MOSCOW North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has arrived in Russia, a source told Reuters on Tuesday, for what the Kremlin said would be a comprehensive discussion with President Vladimir Putin amid warnings from Washington they should not agree on an arms deal.

Kim left Pyongyang for Russia on Sunday on his private train, the North’s state media reported on Tuesday, accompanied by top arms industry and military officials.

A Russian source with knowledge of the trip told Reuters Kim arrived in Russia on Tuesday morning, leaving his train to meet local officials in Khasan, the main rail gateway to Russia’s Far East, before continuing on.

Kim’s arrival was also reported on Tuesday by Russia’s state television Rossiya 1, which showed a train purported to be carrying the North Korean leader – with its signature olive green paint scheme—crossing a bridge.

Kim does not travel abroad frequently, making just seven trips away from his country and twice stepping across the inter-Korean border in his 12 years in power. Four of those trips were to the North’s main political ally, China.

“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.”

Discussions could also include humanitarian aid to North Korea and the U.N. Security Council resolutions imposed against Pyongyang, Russian officials said.

U.S. officials, who first said the visit was imminent, said that arms talks between Russia and North Korea were actively advancing and Kim and Putin are likely to discuss providing Russia with weapons for the war in Ukraine.

Putin arrived in Vladivostok on Monday, Russia’s TASS news agency said. He attended the plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum, which runs through Wednesday.

Peskov said that his meeting with Kim would come after the forum and that no news conference by the leaders is planned, according to Russia news agencies.

There has been no confirmation of the location of the meeting or whether Kim would attend the economic forum.

Kim’s train was headed further north to the Amur region, Japan’s Kyodo news quoted an unnamed Russian official as saying, and it was possible he will hold talks with Putin at the Vostochny cosmodrome there.

Pyongyang and Moscow have denied that North Korea would supply arms to Russia, which has expended vast stocks of weapons in more than 18 months of war.

Washington and its allies have expressed 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 on his last trip abroad.

Peskov said Russia’s national interests would dictate its policies.

“As you know, while implementing our relations with our neighbors, including North Korea, the interests of our two countries are important to us, and not warnings from Washington,” Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian media.

Delegation of defense officials

The makeup of Kim’s delegation, including top defense industry and military affairs, with the notable presence of Munitions Industry Department Director Jo Chun Ryong, suggests an agenda heavy on defense industry cooperation, analysts said.

“The presence of Jo Chun Ryong indicates that North Korea and Russia will conclude some type of agreement for munitions purchases,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

Kim could offer artillery rounds from its large stockpile, which could replenish Russia’s capabilities in the short term, but questions about the ammunition’s quality may limit the overall impact, military analysts said.

South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Chang Ho-jin, the former ambassador to Russia, said it would be in Moscow’s interest to consider its international standing after the Ukraine conflict and remember that it helped form the current nonproliferation regime.

“Military cooperation would be violating Security Council resolutions, whatever (Russia) does with the North,” he said.

On Monday, Washington renewed its warnings to Pyongyang not to sell arms to Russia that could be used in the Ukraine war, urging the North to abide by its promise not to provide or sell weapons to Russia.

The U.S. State Department said any transfer of arms from North Korea to Russia violates Security Council resolutions, which ban all such transactions with North Korea.

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, Kim gave a personal tour of an arms exhibition for Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu when he visited Pyongyang in July, and Shoigu saluted when banned ballistic missiles rolled by at a military parade.

Russia had voted, along with China, to approve Security Council resolutions as late as 2017 punishing Pyongyang for ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests.

– Reporting by Hyunsu Yim, Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul, Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, Lidia Kelly in Melbourne, Steve Holland and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington and Reuters staff in Vladivostok, Writing by Jack Kim. Editing by Gerry Doyle