SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed support for Russia’s “just fight” during a summit with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday that the U.S. warned could lead to a deal to supply ammunition for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
After touring launch pads with Putin at a remote space base in Russia’s Far East, Kim expressed “full and unconditional support” and said Pyongyang will always stand with Moscow on the “anti-imperialist” front.
The leaders met at the Vostochny Cosmodrome for a summit that underscores how their interests are aligning in the face of their countries’ separate, intensifying confrontations with the United States. The talks lasted four to five hours, after which Kim left, Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
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.
That would be a striking reversal of roles: the Soviet Union provided ammunition, warplanes and pilots to support communist North Korea’s invasion of the South during the 1950-53 Korean War, and the North relied on Soviet economic aid for decades afterward.
The decision to meet at the cosmodrome, Russia’s most important launch center on its own soil, suggests that in return Kim is seeking Russian help to develop 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 in attempts to put its first military spy satellite into orbit.
But either buying arms from or providing rocket technology to North Korea would violate international sanctions that Russia has supported in the past.
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 around 40 seconds. In his 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, expressed 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,” the North Korean leader said. “I take this opportunity to affirm that we will always stand with Russia on the anti-imperialist front and the front of independence.”
The two men began their meeting with a tour of a Soyuz-2 space rocket launch facility, at which 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 threw an official lunch for Kim, Russian state media reported.
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 the missiles landed in the waters outside of 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.
During the lunch, which reportedly featured delicacies from Siberia and Russia’s Far East, such as Kamchatka crab dumplings and taiga lingonberries with pine nuts and condensed milk, Kim said that 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,” the North Korean leader said.
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.