Kim Jong-un has arrived in Russia on his armoured train for a rare summit with Vladimir Putin to discuss a possible deal to supply North Korean arms for the war in Ukraine.
The train arrived at Khasan station, the main rail gateway to Russia’s far east from North Korea, where Kim was filmed alighting and meeting the Russian environment minister, before continuing to travel north.
Kim, reportedly accompanied by senior arms industry and military officials, then resumed his trip and could meet Putin on Wednesday after the Eastern Economic Forum in the Russian port city of Vladivostok, where Putin has already arrived.
The current route of his armoured train indicates that he will not visit Vladivostok and will go toward the remote Amur region instead. Putin has said he will visit the Vostochny cosmodrome in that region on Wednesday and the space base would provide a secure location for the two leaders to hold their summit.
It would also be a symbolic venue as two isolated leaders to build cooperation in the military and aerospace fields. North Korea has had several failed space launches and may seek Russia’s aid to put its spy satellites into orbit. But so far the venue and the time of the meeting has not been confirmed.
“When I get there, you will know,” Putin said during a discussion at the forum in Vladivostok on Tuesday.
Kim’s trip to Russia and meeting with Putin will be a full-scale visit to strengthen ties, according to the Kremlin spokesperson. “There will be negotiations between two delegations, and after that, if necessary, the leaders will continue their communication in a one-on-one format,” Dmitry Peskov said.
Kim and Putin could meet after the forum, he said, adding that neither leader planned to hold a news conference, according to Russia news agencies.
There has been no confirmation of the location of the meeting or whether Kim will attend the economic forum.
There are concerns in the west that Pyongyang plans to provide weapons to Moscow to replace stocks that have been heavily depleted during 18 months of fighting in Ukraine.
The shortage in ammunition has forced Russia to conserve its shells and rockets, impose daily fire limits, and focus more on precision guided types of munitions over volumes of fire, said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Russia is mobilising production, but output will be quite short of their needs,” he said. “Therefore they are likely to seek import from any source that can help make up for the deficit.”
On Tuesday, Peskov dismissed US warnings on any arms deal, with Russian news agencies quoting him as saying: “As you know, while implementing our relations with our neighbours, including North Korea, the interests of our two countries are important to us, and not warnings from Washington. It is the interests of our two countries that we will focus on.”
Kim was accompanied by senior government officials, including military personnel, North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said. The delegation is thought to include his foreign minister, Choe Son-hui, and prominent party members in charge of defence industry and military affairs, including the munitions industry department director Jo Chun-ryong.
Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said: “The presence of Jo Chun-ryong indicates that North Korea and Russia will conclude some type of agreement for munitions purchases.”
Earlier, KCNA released photos of Kim’s departure from Pyongyang, where there were military guards of honour and crowds of people in dark suits and colourful dresses who waved flowers and flags as he boarded the green and yellow train.
The trip is Kim’s first visit abroad in more than four years and the first since the Covid-19 pandemic.
US officials believe Putin is likely to focus on securing more supplies of North Korean artillery and other ammunition as he attempts to defuse a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
In return, Kim could seek energy and food aid, as well as advanced technology for satellites and nuclear-powered submarines that could increase the threat posed by North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes.
Some analysts believe, however, that Russia would be reluctant to share details of its closely guarded weapons technology in return for limited supplies of artillery shells and other munitions.
Prof Leif-Eric Easley, a North Korea expert at Ewha University in Seoul, said: “Putin is unlikely to provide Kim with technology to miniaturise nuclear devices or propel nuclear-powered submarines because even a desperate war machine does not trade its military crown jewels for old munitions.”
Securing quantities of North Korean artillery shells and antitank missiles would add to US concerns about a protracted conflict in Ukraine.
“Arms discussions between Russia and the DPRK are expected to continue during Kim Jong-un’s trip to Russia,” said the White House’s national security council spokesperson, Adrienne Watson, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “We urge the DPRK to abide by the public commitments that Pyongyang has made to not provide or sell arms to Russia.”
On Monday, the US state department described Putin as desperate over the Ukraine conflict and renewed warnings that any arms deal could trigger US sanctions.
The state department spokesperson, Matthew Miller, said: “Having to travel across the length of his own country to meet with an international pariah to ask for assistance in a war that he expected to win in the opening month, I would characterise it as him begging for assistance.
“I will remind both countries that any transfer of arms from North Korea to Russia would be in violation of multiple UN security council resolutions.”