Why Kim Jong Un’s Rare Russia Trip Is All About Weapons

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) greets North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un (L) before a meeting April 25, 2019 in Vladivostok, Russia. Kim Jong-un is on his first visit to Russia. Credit – Mikhail Svetlov–Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un departed Pyongyang in a high security luxury armored train to visit Vladimir Putin in Russia, according to multiple South Korean outlets citing government officials. The trip comes shortly after a U.S. official told the Associated Press that a talk between the two leaders was likely in the upcoming week. The meeting is expected to take place in Vladivostok, since Putin is currently there for an international forum.

“At the invitation of the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, Chairman of State Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Jong Un will pay an official visit to Russia in the coming days,” the Kremlin said in a statement Monday, CNN reported.

North Korean state media KCNA also reported that Kim would “meet and have a talk” with Putin but did not offer further details.

This is the first time Kim Jong Un has left North Korea since the COVID-19 pandemic. His last time leaving the country was during the 2019 Koreas DMZ Summit organized by the United States under the Trump Administration.

Analysts say that Putin is interested in meeting with the North Korean leader to discuss potential arms deals as the war between Russia and Ukraine drags on. In exchange, North Korea may ask for food, aid, and other raw materials that are scarce in the poverty-stricken nation, not to mention advanced weaponry for its nuclear-capable ballistic missile program.

Read More: Tracking All of North Korea’s Missile Tests This Year So Far

“It would be a ‘win-win’ deal for both, as Putin is cornered over his exhausted weapons inventory while Kim faces pressure from the South Korea-U.S.-Japan trilateral cooperation,” Nam Sung-wook, a former director of the South Korean think tank Institute for National Security Strategy, told the Associated Press. “Their needs are matched perfectly now.”

Analysts believe that North Korea has tens of millions of compatible Soviet era artillery shells and rockets that it could provide Russia. Though these weapons are based on older technology, the sheer number of them could make them useful to Russia’s war of attrition.

Ammunition shortages have been an ongoing issue over the course of the war in Ukraine, for both Moscow and Kyiv. In July, President Biden warned that Ukraine was running out of ammunition. For its part, Russia has previously turned to North Korea for weapons.

In December, the White House told Reuters that North Korea also sold military weapons to the Russian mercenary group Wagner. However, both Russia and North Korea have denied that such a transaction took place.

The two countries have had strained relations in the past. In 2013, Russia supported two resolutions in the United Nations against North Korea for its nuclear tests. However, relations appear to have grown warmer in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Experts say warming ties are a sign that an increasingly isolated Russia has been forced to turn to pariah states for military equipment.

“It says a lot that Russia is having to turn to a country like North Korea to seek to bolster its defense capacity in a war that it expected be over in a week,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told the Associated Press.

In July, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shogu visited Pyongyang as part of a Russian delegation to North Korea’s parade on the 70th anniversary of the Korean armistice agreement, ended the fighting in Korea. While there, Shogu observed the Hwasong intercontinental ballistic missile along with other new drone designs.

Experts are concerned that Russia could share advanced nuclear, submarine, and missile technologies with North Korea in exchange for the artillery.

“This [meeting] is a very significant development if it goes forward,” Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told CNN. “Russia has the military technology that Kim wants for his illegal satellite launch and nuclear weapons delivery programs.”

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