©Reuters. Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visit the Vostochny Сosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, September 13, 2023. Sputnik/Artem Geodakyan/Pool via REUTERS
By Hyunsu Yim and Guy Faulconbridge
SEOUL/MOSCOW (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia’s Far East on Wednesday, state media reported, for talks Washington suspects will involve defense cooperation. while Kim’s army fires two ballistic missiles at home.
“I’m glad to see you,” Putin said as he shook Kim’s hand for about 40 seconds and welcomed him to the Vostochny Cosmodrome, a modern space launch facility in the Amur region of Russia’s Far East. “This is our new cosmodrome.”
Through an interpreter, Kim thanked Putin for the invitation and for the warmth of his reception.
The summit between the leaders of the two countries, which have become increasingly isolated internationally, is being closely watched by Washington and allies, who suspect they could agree to trade weapons and defense technology.
U.S. and South Korean officials have expressed concern that Kim would talk about supplying weapons and ammunition to Russia, which has spent vast supplies during more than 18 months of war in Ukraine. Moscow and Pyongyang have denied any such intentions.
The choice to meet at the Vostochny Cosmodrome – a symbol of Russia’s ambitions as a space power – was notable considering North Korea has failed to launch reconnaissance satellites twice in the past four months.
In footage released by the RIA news agency, Kim and Putin are seen shaking hands, grinning broadly, as they stand outside surrounded by security personnel and Russian media representatives, before walking together into a gleaming glass-walled building.
Television footage showed Putin giving Kim a tour of the facility.
Hours before the expected summit, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles from an area near the capital Pyongyang into the sea off its east coast, the South Korean military and Japanese government said.
It was the North’s first such launch while Kim was abroad, analysts said. He has traveled outside the country only seven times in his 12 years in power, all in 2018 and 2019. He also briefly crossed the inter-Korean border twice. .
Asked whether the leaders would discuss weapons, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the two countries were cooperating on “sensitive” areas, which the Interfax news agency said would not be made public.
On Tuesday, Peskov said Kim’s visit would be a “full-fledged” one and that the two sides would hold “negotiations.” Humanitarian aid to North Korea and UN Security Council resolutions to Pyongyang could also be discussed, Russian officials say.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the talks are important given the geopolitical changes in the world.
“Bilateral contacts are very important. And the situation on the Korean Peninsula is of course of utmost importance for the security and stability of the region,” state news agency RIA quoted ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying.
Kim arrived in Russia by private train on Tuesday with top defense industry and military aides and said his visit highlighted the “strategic importance” of ties between the two countries, the North’s state news agency KCNA reported on Wednesday.
The composition of Kim’s delegation, with the notable presence of Jo Chun Ryong, director of the Ministry of Munitions Industry, suggested an agenda that would focus heavily on cooperation with the defense industry, analysts said.
Kim could offer artillery shells from North Korea’s large stockpile, which could supplement Russian capabilities in the short term, but questions about the quality of the ammunition could limit the overall impact, military analysts said.
South Korea and the United States have warned that such an agreement would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, which Russia has endorsed as a permanent member of the council.
North Korea is one of the few countries that has openly supported Russia in the Ukraine conflict, and Putin last week pledged to “expand bilateral ties in all respects in a planned manner by joining efforts.”