President Vladimir Putin shook hands with a beaming North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Vostochny Cosmodrome on Wednesday, images released by the Kremlin showed, kicking off a meeting that could see the internationally isolated leaders forge an arms deal.
Accompanied by an entourage that suggested a strong military focus for the summit, the North Korean leader travelled overland to Russia in his bullet-proof train, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
While Kim was out of the country, North Korea fired two ballistic missiles on Wednesday, the South Korean military said, the latest in a string of sanctions-busting tests.
Kim thanked Putin for inviting him to visit, despite the Russian leader’s “busy schedule”, having earlier stressed the trip — his first post-pandemic foreign travel — showed North Korea was “prioritising the strategic importance” of its Russia ties.
The pair met at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, a Russian spaceport some 1,000 kilometres from Vladivostok. Putin said the location was chosen as Moscow planned to help North Korea with its satellite programmes, RIA Novosti reported.
“The leader of the DPRK shows great interest in rocket technology and they are trying to develop (their presence in) space,” Putin said, referring to North Korea by its official name.
“We’ll talk about all the issues without haste. There is time,” he said when asked by reporters whether military cooperation would be on the agenda.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu — who visited Pyongyang in July and has recently mooted bilateral joint naval drills — will take part in the negotiations, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said, RIA Novosti and TASS reported.
Kim is accompanied by top military officials, including Korean People’s Army Marshal Pak Jong Chon and Munitions Industry Department Director Jo Chun Ryong, KCNA said.
SPACEPORT ‘OPTIMAL LOCATION’
The meeting at the cosmodrome is symbolic and sends a signal that Russia might help North Korea with its rocketry and satellite programmes, experts said.
Pyongyang failed twice recently in its bid to put a military spy satellite into orbit.
“The spaceport seems to be the optimal location because it responds to mutual interests, such as providing satellite technology requested by North Korea,” An Chan-il, a defector-turned-researcher who runs the World Institute for North Korea Studies, told AFP.
Russia is eager for North Korea’s stockpile of artillery shells likely for use in Ukraine, while Pyongyang is looking for help in upgrading its Soviet-era equipment, especially for its air force and navy, he said.
“If North Korea’s multiple rocket launchers and other artillery shells are provided to Russia in large quantities, it could have a significant impact on the war in Ukraine,” he added.
Russia’s Natural Resources Minister Alexander Kozlov greeted Kim when he arrived in the country, giving him historic autographed photographs of Soviet cosmonauts, including Yuri Gagarin, Kozlov’s ministry told TASS.
Russia and North Korea’s communication is back on a pre-Covid track with dialogue “actively developing”, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told TASS.
“Our contacts are developing literally on a daily basis in a number of areas.”
The White House warned last week that North Korea would “pay a price” if it supplied Russia with weaponry for the conflict in Ukraine.
Kim is also risking the displeasure of his other major ally Beijing by meeting Putin, Vladimir Tikhonov, professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, told AFP.
“China will be hardly too happy about Russia entering into what the Chinese consider their monopoly territory,” he said, adding Beijing would be worried about the regional destabilisation impact of any transfer of Russian military technology to Pyongyang.
Kim and Putin “may conduct an exchange of North Korea’s old-age, Soviet-type ammo for Russia’s newer military tech or hard currency (or wheat)”, Tikhonov said.
“Tactically, they both gain, by getting what they need right now. In a longer term though, Russia’s important ties to Seoul will be dealt irreparable damage,” he added.