North Korea’s Kim Jong-un arrives in Russia amid U.S. warnings not to sell arms

Kim Jong-un 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 and the foreign minister

September 12, 2023 05:03 am | Updated 06:11 pm IST - SEOUL

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un greets attendants in Pyongyang, North Korea, before boarding a train to Russia on September 10, 2023

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un greets attendants in Pyongyang, North Korea, before boarding a train to Russia on September 10, 2023 | Photo Credit: AP

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived in Russia on Tuesday for an expected meeting with President Vladimir Putin that has sparked concerns about a potential arms deal for Moscow’s war in Ukraine, joined by top military officials in charge of nuclear-capable weapons and munitions factories.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said Mr. Kim boarded his personal train Sunday afternoon, accompanied by unspecified members of the country’s ruling party, government and military.

After decades of complicated, hot-and-cold relations, Russia and North Korea have drawn closer since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The bond has been driven by Mr. Putin’s need for war supplies and Mr. Kim’s efforts to boost his partnerships with traditional allies Moscow and Beijing as he tries to break out of diplomatic isolation.

South Korea’s military assessed the train crossed into Russia sometime early Tuesday, Jeon Ha Gyu, spokesperson of South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said in a briefing without elaborating on how the military obtained the information. Later Tuesday, Russian news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirm that Mr. Kim had entered Russia, and reported that his train had crossed the Razdolnaya River, north of Vladivostok.

Officials identified in North Korean state media photos may hint at what Mr. Kim might seek from Mr. Putin and what he would be willing to give.

Mr. Kim is apparently accompanied by Jo Chun Ryong, a ruling party official in charge of munitions policies who joined the leader on recent tours of factories producing artillery shells and missiles, said South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

North Korea may have tens of millions of artillery shells and rockets based on Soviet designs that could give a huge boost to the Russian army in Ukraine, analysts say.

Also identified in photos were Pak Thae Song, chairman of North Korea’s space science and technology committee, and Navy Adm. Kim Myong Sik, who are linked with North Korean efforts to acquire spy satellites and nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarines. Experts say North Korea would struggle to acquire such capabilities without external help, although it’s not clear if Russia would share such sensitive technologies.

Energy and food supplies

Kim Jong-un may also seek badly needed energy and food supplies, analysts say. Deputy foreign minister Andrei Rudenko said Russia may discuss humanitarian aid with the North Korean delegation, according to Russian news agencies.

Mr. Kim’s delegation also likely includes his foreign minister, Choe Sun Hui, and his top two military officials, Korean People’s Army Marshals Ri Pyong Chol and Pak Jong Chon.

Mr. Kim and Mr. Putin may meet in the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, where Mr. Putin arrived Monday to attend an international forum that runs through Wednesday, according to Russia’s TASS news agency. Mr. Putin’s first meeting with Mr. Kim was held in 2019 in the city, which is about 425 miles (680 kilometers) north of Pyongyang.

Mr. Peskov said Mr. Putin and Mr. Kim will meet after the Vladivostok forum, but the reports didn’t specify when or where. He added that the meeting would include a lunch in Kim’s honor.

Data from FlightRadar24.com, which tracks flights worldwide, showed an Air Koryo Antonov An-148 took off from Pyongyang on Tuesday and flew for about an hour to reach Vladivostok, Russia. Air Koryo, North Korea’s national airline, has only just begun flying internationally again after being grounded during the pandemic. There had been speculation that North Korea could use a plane to fly in support staff.

Kim’s first foreign visit since Covid-19

Mr. Kim is making his first foreign trip since the Covid-19 pandemic, during which North Korea imposed tight border controls for more than three years.

Associated Press journalists near the North Korea-Russia frontier saw a green train with yellow trim similar to one Mr. Kim used during previous foreign trips at a station on the North Korean side of a border river on Monday.

U.S. officials released intelligence last week that North Korea and Russia were arranging a meeting between their leaders.

According to U.S. officials, Mr. Putin could focus on securing more supplies of North Korean artillery and other ammunition to refill declining reserves as he seeks to rebuff a Ukrainian counteroffensive and show that he’s capable of grinding out a long war of attrition. That could potentially put more pressure on the U.S. and its partners to pursue negotiations as concerns over a protracted conflict grow despite their huge shipments of advanced weaponry to Ukraine in the past 17 months.

“Arms discussions between Russia and the DPRK are expected to continue during Kim Jong-un’s trip to Russia,” said White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s official name of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “We urge the DPRK to abide by the public commitments that Pyongyang has made to not provide or sell arms to Russia.”

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Washington will monitor the meeting closely, reminding both countries that “any transfer of arms from North Korea to Russia would be a violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions,” and that the U.S. “will not hesitate to impose new sanctions.”

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters that Tokyo will be watching the outcome of the Kim-Putin meeting with concern, including the “impact it could have on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

The United States has accused North Korea of providing Russia with arms, including selling artillery shells to the Russian mercenary group Wagner. Both Russian and North Korean officials denied such claims.

But speculation about the countries’ military cooperation grew after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made a rare visit to North Korea in July, when Mr. Kim invited him to an arms exhibition and a massive military parade in the capital where he showcased ICBMs designed to target the U.S. mainland.

Following that visit, Mr. Kim toured North Korea’s weapons factories, including a facility producing artillery systems where he urged workers to speed up the development and large-scale production of new kinds of ammunition. Experts say Mr. Kim’s visits to the factories likely had a dual goal of encouraging the modernisation of North Korean weaponry and examining artillery and other supplies that could be exported to Russia.

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