North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected Russia’s nuclear-capable bombers and a warship in its Pacific fleet today as he continued a trip in Russia’s Far East that has sparked Western concerns about an arms alliance that could fuel Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.
After arriving in the city of Artyom by train, Kim travelled to an airport just outside the port city of Vladivostok where Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and other senior military officials gave him an up-close look at Russia’s strategic bombers and other warplanes.
All the types of Russian warplanes shown to Kim today were among those that have seen active use in the war in Ukraine, including the Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22 bombers that have regularly launched cruise missiles.
Shoigu, who had met Kim during a rare visit to North Korea in July, also showed Kim one of Russia’s latest missiles, the hypersonic Kinzhal, carried by the MiG-31 fighter jet, that saw its first combat during the war in Ukraine, according to Russia’s Defence Ministry.
Kim and Shoigu later travelled to Vladivostok, where they inspected the Admiral Shaposhnikov frigate of Russia’s Pacific fleet. Russia’s navy commander, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, briefed the North Korean leader on the ship’s capabilities and weapons, which include long-range Kalibr cruise missiles that Russian warships have regularly fired at targets in Ukraine.
Kim’s visit to Russia, which included more than four hours of talks with Putin on Wednesday, comes amid momentum in military co-operation between the countries. North Korea could potentially seek Russian technologies to advance Kim’s nuclear, missile and other military programmes in exchange for providing Russia with badly needed munitions as its invasion of Ukraine becomes a drawn-out war of attrition.
Videos released by Russia’s Defence Ministry showed Shoigu greeting Kim at the airport along with honour guards lined up near a red carpet, and Kim gesturing and asking questions about the warplanes’ capabilities as he discussed technical details with Shoigu and other military officials through translators.
In the ministry’s videos, Kim was seen peering at the Kinzhal missile and also talking to Shoigu and Yevmenov about a purported nuclear attack submarine the North unveiled last week.
The visit follows Kim’s tour on Friday of a factory producing advanced Russian warplanes.
Kim in recent months has emphasised the need to strengthen his navy to counter the advanced naval assets of the United States, which has been expanding its combined military exercises with South Korea to counter the North’s growing threat.
Analysts say Kim’s focus on naval strength could be driven by ambitions to obtain sophisticated technologies for ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-propelled submarines as well as to initiate joint naval exercises between Russia and North Korea.
Oleg Kozhemyako, the governor of Russia’s Primorsky region, earlier announced Kim’s arrival in the city of Artyom, about 40 kilometres northeast of Vladivostok. Kozhemyako released a video showing Kim’s arrival on a messaging app channel that saw Kim smiling as he got off his green-and-yellow train and was greeted by children presenting flowers.
After meeting Putin at Russia’s main spaceport, a location that pointed to Kim’s desire for Russian assistance in his efforts to acquire space-based reconnaissance assets and missile technologies, North Korea’s leader reappeared Friday in the far eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur for a visit to a plant producing Russia’s Su-57 fighter jets.
Experts have said potential military co-operation between the countries could include efforts to modernise North Korea’s outdated air force, which relies on warplanes sent from the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said today that during his visit to the aircraft plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Kim expressed “sincere regard” for what he described as Russia’s rapidly advancing aviation technologies, which he said were “outpacing the outside potential threats”.
North Korean state media have been reporting on Kim’s activities in Russia a day late while crafting the details to meet government propaganda purposes.
Russia’s Cabinet on Friday released a video showing Kim on an elevated platform looking at the cockpit of an Su-57 while listening to its pilot. Kim also beamed and clapped his hands when a Su-35 fighter jet landed after a demonstration flight.
During a luncheon hosted by Russian officials, Kim’s top military officer, army Marshal Ri Pyong Chol, said his leader’s visit to the facility “added another glorious page” to the relations between the countries, KCNA said. Kim’s delegation also includes the top commanders of North Korea’s air force and navy.
Putin today briefed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko about his summit with Kim. During their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Lukashenko suggested Belarus could join Russia and North Korea in “three-way co-operation”.
Kim’s trip to Russia, his first since April 2019 when he met Putin in Vladivostok, came days after he attended a ceremony at a North Korean military shipyard where the country unveiled the alleged nuclear attack submarine.
State media claimed it is capable of launching tactical nuclear weapons from underwater. But South Korea’s military expressed doubt about the operational capabilities of the sub, which was the result of reshaping an existing submarine to install missile launch tubes.
Kim has announced goals to acquire nuclear-propelled submarines, which can quietly travel long distances and approach enemy shores to deliver strikes, a key asset in his efforts to build a viable nuclear arsenal that could threaten the United States. Analysts say such capacities would be unfeasible for the North without external assistance.
Putin on Friday reiterated that Russia would abide by UN sanctions, some of which ban North Korea from exporting or importing any weapons. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov separately said that no agreements on bilateral military co-operation were signed after the Putin-Kim meeting Wednesday.
Experts say North Korea and Russia aren’t likely to publicise any deals on weapons to avoid stronger international criticism.
Kim, whose visit to Russia is his first foreign trip since the Covid-19 pandemic, has been eager to boost the visibility of his partnerships with Moscow and Beijing as he attempts to break out of international isolation and insert Pyongyang in a united front against Washington. Some South Korean experts say that Kim could also pursue a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In another sign of the North’s post-pandemic opening, KCNA said today that a team of North Korean athletes departed from the country’s capital, Pyongyang, to participate in the Asian Games starting next week in Hangzhou, China. South Korea’s government says around 190 North Korean athletes are registered for the event.
Since last year, the US has accused North Korea of providing ammunition, artillery shells and rockets to Russia, many of them likely copies of Soviet-era munitions. South Korean officials said North Korean weapons provided to Russia have already been used in Ukraine.
Some analysts question how much Russia would be willing to share its sensitive weapons technology in exchange for North Korean conventional arms. But others say that is now a possibility to consider as Russia becomes desperate to refill its drained reserves.
After a meeting in Seoul discussing the allies’ nuclear deterrence strategies, US and South Korean officials on Friday stepped up their condemnation of the recent moves by Russia and North Korea.
Sasha Baker, the US acting undersecretary of defence for policy, said Washington will continue to “try to identify and expose and counter Russian attempts to acquire military equipment, again, to prosecute their illegal war on Ukraine”.
South Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Chang Ho-jin said Washington and Seoul, while increasing security co-operation, would ensure that Moscow faces consequences if it helps advance North Korea’s weapons programme.