North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has rolled through Russia on an armoured train towards a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, a rare encounter between isolated leaders driven together by their need for support in escalating stand-offs with the West.
Mr Kim is expected to seek economic aid and military technology for his impoverished country, and, in a twist, appears to have something Mr Putin desperately needs: munitions for Russia’s gruelling war in Ukraine.
It is a chance for the North Korean leader to get around crippling UN sanctions and years of diplomatic isolation. For Mr Putin, it is an opportunity to refill ammunition stores that the war has drained.
Any arms deal with North Korea would violate the sanctions, which Russia supported in the past.
Mr Kim’s personal train stopped in Khasan, a station on the Russia-North Korea border, where it was met by a military honour guard and a brass band, according to video posted on social media channels.
He was met on a red carpet by regional governor Oleg Kozhemyako and natural resources minister Alexander Kozlov, their channels said. However, Mr Kim’s final destination is uncertain.
Many had assumed he and Mr Putin would meet in Vladivostok, a Russian city close to the border where the two leaders had their last meeting in 2019, and which Mr Putin is visiting this week for an economic forum.
But Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed only that Mr Kim had entered Russia, and state news agency RIA-Novosti later reported his train had headed north after crossing the Razdelnaya 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 Mr Putin is to visit soon. At the forum, Mr Putin declined to say what he intended to do there.
The launch facility is about 900 kilometres (550 miles) north-west of Ussuriysk, but the route there is circuitous and it is unclear how long Mr Kim’s slow-moving train would take to reach it.
Mr Peskov said Mr Putin and Mr Kim will meet after the Vladivostok forum, and that the meeting would include a lunch in Mr Kim’s honour.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said Mr Kim left Pyongyang on his train on Sunday, accompanied by members of the ruling party, government and military.
Officials identified in North Korean state media photos could hint at what Mr Kim might seek from Mr Putin and what he would be willing to give.
Mr Kim is apparently accompanied by 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.
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu will be part of the Russian delegation, Mr Peskov said. North Korea may have tens of millions of ageing artillery shells and rockets based on Soviet designs that could give a huge boost to the Russian army in Ukraine, analysts say.
Also identified in photos were Pak Thae Song, chairman of North Korea’s space science and technology committee, and navy Admiral 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 is not clear if Russia would share such sensitive technology. Kim Jong Un may also seek badly needed energy and food supplies, analysts say.
Deputy foreign minister Andrei Rudenko said Russia may discuss humanitarian aid with the North Korean delegation, according to Russian news agencies. Mr Kim’s delegation is also likely to include foreign minister Choe Son Hui and his top two military officials, Korean People’s Army Marshals Ri Pyong Chol and Pak Jong Chon.
Data from FlightRadar24.com, which tracks flights worldwide, showed an Air Koryo An-148 took off from Pyongyang on Tuesday and flew to Vladivostok. North Korea’s national airline has only just resumed flying internationally after being grounded during the Covid-19 pandemic. There had been speculation that North Korea could use a plane to fly in support staff.
Mr Kim is making his first foreign trip since the pandemic, during which North Korea imposed tight border controls for more than three years. After decades of hot-and-cold relations, Russia and North Korea have drawn closer since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Lim Soo-suk, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said Seoul was maintaining communication with Moscow while closely monitoring Mr 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 co-operation with North Korea that undermines the peace and stability of the international community,” Mr Lim said at a briefing.
US officials released intelligence last week that North Korea and Russia were arranging the summit. According to US officials, Mr Putin could focus on securing more supplies of North Korean artillery and other ammunition to refill arsenals as Moscow seeks to rebuff a Ukrainian counteroffensive and show that he is capable of grinding out a long war of attrition.
That could potentially put more pressure on the US and its partners to pursue negotiations as concerns over a protracted conflict grow despite their huge shipments of advanced weaponry to Ukraine in the past 17 months.
“We urge the DPRK to abide by the public commitments that Pyongyang has made to not provide or sell arms to Russia,” said White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s official name of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller reminded both countries that “any transfer of arms from North Korea to Russia would be a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions”, and that the US “will not hesitate to impose new sanctions”.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters that Tokyo will be watching the Kim-Putin meeting with concern, including the “impact it could have on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”.
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.
But speculation about their military co-operation grew after Mr Shoigu visited North Korea in July, when Mr Kim invited him to an arms exhibition and a massive military parade in the capital showcasing ICBMs designed to target the US mainland.
Following that visit, Mr Kim toured North Korea’s weapons factories, including a facility producing artillery systems, urging workers to speed up development and large-scale production of new kinds of ammunition.
Experts say Mr Kim’s visits to the factories were likely to have had a dual goal of encouraging the modernisation of North Korean weaponry and examining artillery and other supplies that could be exported to Russia.