SEOUL – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was in Russia on a rare overseas visit on Tuesday, ahead of a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Washington warned of a possible arms deal for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
Pyongyang, which is already under a raft of international sanctions for its nuclear weapons programme, has repeatedly denied supplying arms to Russia – though that stance could change in the coming days, experts say.
Mr Kim, wearing a black suit and flanked by uniformed defence officials, waved from the doorway of his heavily armoured private train with green and gold livery just before it departed from Pyongyang station on Sunday evening.
The Kremlin confirmed that Mr Putin would meet Mr Kim later this week in Russia’s Far East region.
The United States on Monday described Mr Putin as “begging for assistance” by meeting an “international pariah” in Mr Kim, and renewed warnings that any arms deals could trigger US sanctions.
Here is what is known about North Korean-Russian ties:
What can North Korea offer Russia?
Earlier in September, Washington said that despite its denials, Pyongyang had supplied infantry rockets and missiles to Moscow in 2022, for use by the privately controlled Wagner military group.
Mr Joseph Dempsey, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that Moscow would be most interested in artillery shells that can be easily integrated.
“North Korea likely represents the largest stockpiles of Soviet-era legacy artillery shells and artillery that could be used to restock depleted Russian inventories from the Ukraine conflict,” he told AFP.
The president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, Professor Yang Moo-jin, told AFP that once the summit is over, regardless of its outcome, “the new Cold War structure between South Korea, the United States and Japan versus North Korea, China and Russia will intensify”.
“If that happens, denuclearisation and peaceful prosperity on the Korean peninsula will be a long way off”, even more so than now, Prof Yang added.
What does North Korea want in return?
Analysts say Russia has everything that impoverished North Korea needs.
“Russia is a food export country, a fertiliser export country, an energy export country,” said Dr Cho Han-bum, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Mr Dempsey said that Pyongyang could also seek the transfer of “key technologies, knowledge and manufacturing capacity for North Korea’s arms industry to advance and be more sustainable”.
A 2022 United Nations report highlighted the role of a North Korean diplomat in Moscow in procuring a range of ballistic missile technologies, going as far as attempting to get three tonnes of steel for Pyongyang’s submarine programme.
North Korea could also get diplomatic gains from the deal by sending a message to China.
“Since the Cold War era, North Korea has always practised the so-called ‘pendulum diplomacy’ between China and the Soviet Union, going back and forth to maximise its benefit,” said Dr Park Won-gon of Ewha Womans University.
“I can see some of that being practised now.”
What about summits in the past?
Russia, a historical ally of Pyongyang, was a crucial backer of the isolated country for decades, and their ties go back to the founding of North Korea.
However, the Soviet Union reduced funding to the North as it began to seek reconciliation with Seoul in the 1980s. Pyongyang was hit hard by the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991.
The Russian Federation and the North held their first summit in 2000, when a joint declaration – which focused on economic cooperation and diplomatic exchanges – was signed.
The signing of the agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the late Kim Jong Il, the father and predecessor of current leader Kim Jong Un, marked a significant milestone in revitalising bilateral relations after a period of stagnation.
Mr Kim Jong Un made his first official visit to Russia in 2019, as he was seeking closer ties with the North’s traditional ally amid a nuclear deadlock with Washington.
Mr Kim and Mr Putin released no joint statement at the time.
But Mr Kim has been steadfast in his support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, including, Washington says, supplying Russia with rockets and missiles.
What would a Pyongyang-Moscow deal mean?
The White House warned last week that North Korea will “pay a price” if it supplies Russia with weaponry for the conflict in Ukraine.
Defying the warnings, Mr Kim left North Korea for Russia on Sunday, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
He was accompanied by top North Korean military officials, including those in charge of weapons production and space technology, it added.
Dr Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, told AFP that if North Korea were to expand military cooperation with Russia, there would be “an increased likelihood of prolonged conflict in Ukraine”.
And Pyongyang’s reward for aiding Moscow could mean that “advancements in North Korea’s nuclear submarine and reconnaissance satellite development might then progress at a faster pace”, he said.
If Moscow and Pyongyang indeed proceed with shipments of arms, locating them will become the “responsibility of the international community”, to hold them accountable.
In the case of artillery shells, Dr Cheong suggested that “the North could transport them to Moscow via trains” due to their “relatively small size”. AFP
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