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. warns 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 their 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 reversal of roles 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 described as crucial to enhance the threat of his nuclear-capable missiles. In recent months, 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 special armored train, at the entrance to the launch facility, greeting his guest with a handshake that lasted about 40 seconds. In opening remarks, Putin talked about 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 give a huge boost to the Russian army 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. Both Russian and North Korean officials have denied 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.
As they toured a Soyuz-2 space rocket launch facility, Kim peppered a Russian space official with questions about the rockets.
Kim and Putin then met together with their delegations and later one-on-one, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. After the talks, the Russian president gave 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 attend "a demonstration of capabilities" of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, visit 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," so "the prospects are not bad," Putin added.
He dodged the issue, however, of their military cooperation. "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.
The meeting came hours after North Korea fired two ballistic missiles toward the sea, extending a highly provocative run in North Korean weapons testing since the start of 2022, as Kim used the distraction caused by Putin’s war on Ukraine to accelerate his weapons development.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff didn’t immediately say how far the North Korean 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 to vessels or aircraft.
Official photos showed that Kim was accompanied by 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, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry.
Asked whether Russia will help North Korea build satellites, Putin was quoted by Russian state 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 abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Asked about military cooperation, Putin said "we will talk about all issues without a rush. There is time."
Kim also brought Jo Chun Ryong, a ruling party official in charge of munitions policies, who joined him on recent tours of factories producing artillery shells and missiles, according to South Korea.
Despite the recent frequency of North Korean missile firings, Wednesday’s launches on the eve of the summit came as 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 traveling overseas.
Kim could have ordered the launches to make a point to Putin about North Korea’s defense posture and show that he remains in close control of the country’s military activities even while abroad, said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst with 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 with the launches could have also intended to express its anger toward the United States, after State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a press briefing that 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 dual goal of encouraging the modernization of North Korean weaponry and examining artillery and other supplies that could be exported to Russia.
During their lunch, which reportedly featured regional delicacies such as Kamchatka crab dumplings and taiga lingonberries with pine nuts and condensed milk, Kim said he and Putin agreed to deepen their "strategic and tactical cooperation," and that he believes Russia will achieve victory, apparently referring to the war in 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.
Litvinova reported from Tallinn, Estonia. Associated Press journalists Jim Heintz in Tallinn, Estonia; Haruka Nuga and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo; and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed.