Putin confirms meeting as North Korea's Kim Jong-un reportedly heads to Russian Far East

Putin confirms meeting as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un reportedly heads to Russian Far East

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is reportedly on his way to the Russian Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, as the Kremlin confirmed Monday he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a potential arms for arms deal that could boost Russia’s flagging invasion of Ukraine.

South Korean officials in Seoul said Monday that Mr. Kim’s famous armored train is in motion, likely headed for Russia, with which North Korea shares a short land border. The nearly 300-mile trip would be the reclusive North Korean leader’s first trip out of the country since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic more than three years ago.

Pyongyang’s state-controlled Korean Central News Agency reported that Mr. Kim would meet Mr. Putin “soon,” while Russia’s TASS new agency reported the two would meet “in the coming days.” Hours later, the Kremlin announced its own confirmation as Mr. Putin arrived in Vladivostok for a previously scheduled economic development conference and had invited Mr. Kim to meet him.

“At the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, [Mr. Kim] will make an official visit to Russia in the next few days,” the Kremlin said in a report. North Korea is one of the few countries in the world to openly endorse Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine and the Russian leader last week said last week he wanted to “expand bilateral ties in all respects in a planned way by pooling efforts.”

Biden administration officials have been eyeing the rumored summit with concern. There is a widespread belief that Moscow, which has been put on the defensive in its 18-month invasion in Ukraine, wants to purchase or trade arms from Mr. Kim to replenish its depleted armory.

In July, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made a surprise visit to North Korea. There, he met Mr. Kim, held talks, watched a military parade and visited an expo of North Korea’s weapons, including newly unveiled drones.

Mr. Putin is hosting the four-day Eastern Economic Forum, a pet project of his, in the port city, Moscow’s outpost on the distant edge of the Russian Far East. The forum, which kicked off Sunday, seeks to draw investment into the vast, resource-rich, underdeveloped region.

Both summit participants face limited travel options these days: With an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court hanging over his head, Mr. Putin attended neither last weekend’s G20 summit in India nor the recent BRICS summit in South Africa.

Mr. Kim, for his part, last traveled overseas in 2019, when he met then-U.S. President Donald Trump for an abortive summit in Vietnam in February and two months later held his first — and so far only — meeting with Mr. Putin in Vladivostok.

It was not clear if Mr. Kim would take part in the summit or just hold talks with Mr. Putin. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov told reporters the two delegations would hold talks and the two leaders would meet “one on one if necessary.”

“I don’t know how it is going to be arranged, maybe just a bilateral — [Mr. Kim] is not necessarily going to participate,” said Oleg Kiriyanov, head of Seoul-based think tank Asia Risk Research Center. “But if he comes, I think Russians will want him to take part, as not so many leaders came.”

There are potentially fruitful grounds for cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang, two economies laboring up harsh trade and investment sanctions from the U.S. and its allies. Soviet-era arms are the basis of North Korea’s armory, and could be relatively quickly deployed on the battlefields of Ukraine.

Western analysts say Russia is short of shells and rockets for its deadliest combat arm: tactical artillery. And from early in the conflict, a number of Russian voices have argued for North Korean labor — which is cheap and disciplined — to be brought in to assist Russian engineers.

For its part, North Korea is perennially short of food and energy. It also seeks space technology, given the high-profile recent failures of two reconnaissance satellite launches, and nuclear submarine technology.

Mr. Kiriyanov, a Seoul-based Russian, suggested that Russia could send food and fuel to North Korea. But he was dubious about transfers of high-end military, underwater or space technologies.

“Giving military technologies to North Korea is a dangerous step on the Russian side as you never know how they will use it,” he said. “During the USSR, Moscow did not want to give nuclear or missile technologies as North Korea used to be inclined to risky actions and provocations.”

There is another, diplomatic reason for Mr. Kim to seek deeper relations with Mr. Putin. North Korea’s elite are believed to resent the country’s heavy dependence upon China, and would like to diversify their lines of supply and diplomatic options.

“I wonder if this relationship makes sense, and to what extent Beijing will be naturally suspicious,” said Mason Richey, who teaches international relations at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “They may be uncomfortable to see these two legs of that rickety triangle cooperating so closely.”

Mr. Richey noted that the officials heading the recent delegation sent by China to North Korea to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War in July, and the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the North Korean state over the past weekend were of lower rank than Russian delegations.