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. warned 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 the two countries' 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 role reversal from the 1950-53 Korean War, when Moscow gave weapons to support Pyongyang’s invasion of South Korea — and in the decades that followed, when the Soviet Union sponsored North Korea.
Reporting on the meeting Thursday, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said Kim invited Putin to visit North Korea at a “convenient time” and that Putin accepted with “pleasure and reaffirmed his will to invariably carry forward” the history of friendship between the nations.
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. He has previously said that is crucial to enhancing the threat of his nuclear-capable missiles, and 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 armored train, at the launch facility, greeting his guest with a handshake of about 40 seconds. Putin spoke of 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.
North Korea may have tens of millions of aging artillery shells and rockets based on Soviet designs that could bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, analysts say.
Washington has accused North Korea of providing Russia with arms, including selling artillery shells to the Russian mercenary group Wagner. Russian and North Korean officials deny such claims.
But either buying arms from or providing rocket technology to North Korea would violate international sanctions that Russia has previously supported.
It would both underscore and deepen Russia’s isolation in the 18 months after its invasion of Ukraine drew increasing sanctions that have cut off Moscow’s economy from global markets and shrunk the circle of world leaders willing to meet with Putin. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are also at their highest point in years as the pace of both Kim’s weapons demonstrations and the United States’ combined miliary exercises with South Korea have intensified. There are concerns the North would seek advanced weapons technologies from Russia that would increase the threat posed by Kim’s military nuclear program in exchange for fueling Putin’s war on Ukraine.
Jeon Ha Gyu, spokesperson of South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said Seoul was closely monitoring the diplomacy between Moscow and Pyongyang and urged Russia to “properly follow” U.N. Security Council resolutions.
When asked whether North Korean arms shipments to Russia would inspire Seoul to change its policy of limiting its support of Ukraine to non-lethal supplies, Jeon said “there’s no change in the government’s stance of not providing lethal weapons” to Kyiv.
Moscow's priority is success in Ukraine, “and it would do pretty much anything in order to achieve that,” said James Nixey, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank.
“Russia possibly wants to settle in for a longer war, but it can’t meet the necessary industrial capacity," he said. In return, Pyongyang is likely to get food and missile technology from Moscow, “a relatively easy gift" for the Kremlin, Nixey said.
As the leaders toured a Soyuz-2 rocket launch facility on Wednesday, Kim peppered a Russian space official with questions.
Kim and Putin met together with their delegations and later one-on-one, said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. After the talks, there was an official lunch for Kim, Russian state media reported.
Kim has described space-based reconnaissance capabilities as crucial for enhancing the threat of nuclear-capable missiles designed to target the United States and its Asian allies, South Korea and Japan.
Following repeated failures, North Korea may want to launch a spy satellite on a Russian space launch vehicle, said Yang Uk, a military expert at South Korea’s Asian Institute for Policy Studies. He said North Korea could also ask Russia to build a more powerful spy satellite than the one it has been trying to launch.
“It’s possible that North Korea pushes to participate in the production process of the satellite, rather than just acquiring a finished product, to set up a natural transfer of technologies,” Yang said.
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 view Russia’s Pacific Fleet, a university and other facilities.
Russia and North Korea have “lots of interesting projects” in spheres like transportation and agriculture, Putin said. Moscow is providing its neighbor with humanitarian aid, but there also are opportunities for “working as equals,” he added.
He dodged the issue, however, of military cooperation, saying only that Russia is abiding by the sanctions prohibiting procuring weapons from Pyongyang. “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.
James O’Brien, head of the Office of Sanctions Coordination at the U.S. State Department, said Russia was “scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for help because it’s having trouble sustaining its military,”
A deal between the countries would violate existing sanctions, O'Brien said, and would trigger the U.S. to try to identify the individuals and the financial mechanisms used to “at least limit their ability to be effective."
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at a news conference that “any form of cooperation of any country with North Korea must respect the sanctions regime that was imposed by the Security Council.”
Wednesday's meeting came hours after North Korea fired two ballistic missiles toward the sea, extending a highly provocative run in testing since 2022, as Kim used the distraction caused by war in Ukraine to accelerate his weapons development.
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.
Official photos showed Kim was accompanied by Pak Thae Song, chairman of North Korea’s space science and technology committee, and Adm. Kim Myong Sik, who are linked with efforts to acquire spy satellites and nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarines.
Kim also brought Jo Chun Ryong, who heads munitions policies and had joined him on tours of factories producing artillery shells and missiles.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said it was the first time the North launched a missile while Kim was abroad.
Kim could have ordered them to show he is in control of military activities even while outside the country, said Moon Seong Mook of the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
Asked whether Moscow will help North Korea build satellites, Putin was quoted by Russian 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 acronym for North Korea’s formal name. Asked about military cooperation, Putin said: “We will talk about all issues without a rush. There is time.”
Noting what he called the “laconic” official presentation of the summit's outcome, Alexander Vorontsov of the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Asian Studies was quoted as saying by the Tass news agency that "we can assume that ... most of the agreements reached ... will remain secret for the time being.”
At their lunch, which reportedly featured regional delicacies such as Kamchatka crab dumplings and taiga lingonberries with pine nuts, Kim said he and Putin agreed to deepen their “strategic and tactical cooperation.”