Kim, Putin Meet at Russian Space Center for Possible Arms Deal

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Vladimir Putin met for their first summit in four years, which the US said could focus on weapons deals that help the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine.

(Bloomberg) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Vladimir Putin met for their first summit in four years, which the US said could focus on weapons deals that help the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine. 

Putin and Kim held talks Wednesday at the Vostochny Cosmodrome space center in the Amur region. They shared a handshake when Kim stepped out of his limousine and then toured the space center, visiting exhibitions on Angara rockets — a family of launch vehicles.

The visit to the facility underscored some of the items that may be on Kim’s wish list in exchange for supplying munitions to Russia. Pyongyang has failed twice this year to deploy a spy satellite and may be seeking assistance from Moscow in putting one into orbit. Kim could also be seeking technology that would help his regime’s nuclear warheads survive the heat from reentry to the atmosphere.

Putin said North Korea was interested in Russian space rockets, and his country would potentially be willing to help it build satellites, according to RIA Novosti, a Russian state-owned newswire. Kim will visit civilian and military equipment factories in Komsomolsk-on-Amur and also head to Vladivostok, Putin said.

When asked before the summit whether he and Kim would discuss military-technical cooperation, Putin replied: “We will talk about all issues, without hurry. There is time,” RIA reported. Interfax said Russia and North Korea agreed to cooperate in sectors including military.

North Korea has backed Moscow during its invasion of Ukraine and Kim used the meeting to offer his personal support to Putin.

“I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate that we have always expressed our full and unconditional support for everything that the Russian government is doing to defend its sovereign rights and its security interests in the face of such regional hegemonic forces,” Kim said in comments broadcast on TV from the meeting.

Show of Force

Shortly before the summit, North Korea put on a display of force, firing two short-range ballistic missiles into waters off its east coast, South Korea’s military said. It was likely the first time North Korea has launched ballistic missiles with Kim out of the country. 

Ukraine also launched a missile attack on the Crimean city of Sevastopol before Kim and Putin met, causing a fire and wounding at least 24 people. Sevastopol is an important port and hosts Russia’s Black Sea Fleet that is key to Moscow’s war efforts in Ukraine.

Read: Russia Says Ukraine Hit Crimean Shipyard in Missile Strike 

Kim may be looking for food aid and technology to support his plans to deploy a nuclear-powered submarine as well as help with his space program. Spy satellites could help Kim keep track of US forces in the region and better refine his targeting of potential strike sites, experts have said.

North Korea has some of the world’s largest supplies of munitions that are interoperable with Soviet-era systems, which Russia needs as it burns through its stocks of artillery shells. The US has said any supplies would not alter the course of the war and has told Pyongyang it would pay a price for any arms transfers.

North Korea has been busy churning out short-range ballistic missiles similar to some of the rockets Russia has used on Ukraine and which now appear to be in short supply. A transfer would mark a major elevation in cooperation, and the rockets would probably be sold at a high mark-up by Kim.

Jeh Sung-Hoon, head of the department of Russian Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, sees economic cooperation as a key part of the talks, including an arrangement by which North Korea has been sending its workers to Russia for decades in exchange for hard currency.

“It’s quite significant they picked Vostochny for the meeting venue,” Jeh said. “It signals that Russia could fire off spy satellite for North Korea, since Pyongyang keeps failing its launches, and try to justify it as cooperation on scientific advancement, which can vaguely evade sanctions.”

The summit between the two leaders who have faced international isolation and sanctions marks the first time Kim has left the Korean Peninsula since 2019, when he held his only other summit with Putin in Vladivostok.

Putin treated Kim to a gourmet lunch that included duck salad and dumplings made with Kamchatka crab. The leaders also had a choice of sturgeon with mushrooms and potatoes or an entrecote of marbled beef with grilled vegetables.

Kim is traveling with his foreign minister, top military officials and senior cadres in his weapons sector. 

Putin’s delegation included Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Industry Minister Denis Manturov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other top officials, responsible for areas such as transportation and natural resources. Absent from the delegation were the ministers responsible for energy and finance. 

Russia may be looking to tap into the vast stock of minerals in North Korea that include rare earth metals. Foreign countries have been trying for decades to extract the minerals but North Korea, which has a reputation for twisting contracts, also lacks enough power generation for major mining operations and infrastructure to transport enough ore to make a venture profitable.

Read: Kim’s Transport of Choice Is a Slow, Swanky Bulletproof Train

Kim met Shoigu in July in Pyongyang and showed him a collection of North Korea’s latest weapons when the defense minister visited for celebrations to mark the anniversary of the end of Korean War fighting 70 years ago.

For months the US has accused North Korea of supplying munitions to help Putin’s war in Ukraine, something Moscow and Pyongyang have denied. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told a news briefing this week that “pariah” Putin is “traveling across his own country, hat in hand, to beg Kim Jong Un for military assistance.” 

–With assistance from Eduard Gismatullin.

(Updates with details on Kim’s next stop.)

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