North Korea fired two ballistic missiles toward the sea Wednesday, as leader Kim Jong Un rolled through Russia on an armoured train toward a meeting with President Vladimir Putin.
That meeting underscores how the two leaders’ interests are aligning in the face of their separate, intensifying confrontations with the United States.
The launch extended 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 Coast Guard, citing Tokyo’s Defence Ministry, said the missiles have likely already landed but still urged vessels to watch for falling objects.
For Putin, the meeting with Kim is an opportunity to refill ammunition stores that the 18-month-old war has drained. For Kim, it’s a chance to get around crippling UN sanctions and years of diplomatic isolation. Kim is expected to seek economic aid and military technology though an arms deal would violate international sanctions that Russia supported in the past.
Kim’s personal train stopped in Khasan, a station on the Russia-North Korea border, early Tuesday where it was met by a military honour guard and a brass band. He was met on a red carpet by regional Governor Oleg Kozhemyako and Natural Resources Minister Alexander Kozlov, according to North Korean state media and video posted on social media.
Kim said his decision to visit Russia four years after his previous visit showed how Pyongyang is “prioritizing the strategic importance” of its relations with Moscow, North Korea’s official news agency said Wednesday. The Korean Central News Agency said Kim then left for his destination, but it didn’t specify where.
Putin has been attending an economic forum this week in Vladivostok, a Russian city close to the border where the two leaders had their last meeting, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said the two leaders will meet afterward. But it’s not certain where.
Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported Kim’s train headed north after crossing the Razdolnaya River, taking it away from Vladivostok. The South Korean news agency Yonhap later published a photo it said showed the train in Ussuriysk, a city about 60 kilometres (about 40 miles) north of Vladivostok that has a sizable ethnic Korean population.
Some Russian news media speculate he is headed for the Vostochny spaceport, which Putin is to visit soon. The launch facility is about 900 kilometres (550 miles) northwest of Ussuriysk, but the route there is circuitous and it is unclear how long Kim’s slow-moving train would take to reach it.
Workers on Wednesday were constructing a temporary wooden platform at a railway station in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, another city in the Russian Far East. Citing unidentified Russian officials, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported that Kim was expected to visit a plant in that city that produces Sukhoi fighter jets after his meeting with Putin.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu will be part of the Russian delegation, Peskov said.
Kim’s delegation includes Foreign Minister Choe Sun Hui and his top military officials, including Korean People’s Army Marshals Ri Pyong Chol and Pak Jong Chon and Defence Minister Kang Sun Nam.
Other officials identified in North Korean state media photos along his trip could hint at what Kim might seek from Putin and what he would be willing to give.
One is 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’s Unification Ministry.
Also identified in photos were 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. Experts say North Korea would struggle to acquire such capabilities without external help, although it’s not clear if Russia would share such sensitive technology.
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. Kim Jong Un may also seek energy supplies and food. Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said Russia may discuss humanitarian aid with the North Korean delegation, according to Russian news agencies.
Lim Soo-suk, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said Seoul was maintaining communication with Moscow while closely monitoring Kim’s visit.
“No UN member state should violate Security Council sanctions against North Korea by engaging in an illegal trade of arms, and must certainly not engage in military cooperation with North Korea that undermines the peace and stability of the international community,” Lim said at a briefing.
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 denied such claims.
Speculation about their military cooperation grew after Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, 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.