September 13, 2023
SEOUL – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday met at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia’s primary spaceport, in the Russian Far East. The meeting comes amid growing concerns over a possible arms deal between the two isolated countries, despite international sanctions.
Putin did not conceal the shared intention of Pyongyang and Moscow to intensify military cooperation, including the transfer of satellite technology to North Korea.
Putin said that the venue was deliberately selected to assist North Korea in building satellites, Russia’s state-run Sputnik news agency reported.
“The North Korean leadership is interested in rocket construction, they are also trying to develop space technologies,” Putin said.
Putin also answered “They will discuss all issues in no particular hurry” because “they have time” when asked by reporters whether military cooperation would be on the agenda.
A video released by Russian media outlets also showed Kim shaking Putin’s hand and thanking his counterpart for the invitation, despite his “tight schedule.” Earlier in the day, North Korean state media said Kim’s trip reflects the “strategic significance” of its relationship with Russia.
According to reports, Kim told Putin that ties with Russia are North Korea’s top priority and that his country supports the Russian leader’s decisions. Kim also said North Korea will remain “together” in the fight against “imperialism.”
Putin and Kim initiated their meeting with a tour of the Angara and Soyuz-2 space launch vehicle facilities at the spaceport.
The transfer of satellite technology is crucial for the Kim Jong-un regime to realize the objectives outlined in its five-year national defense development plan, a proposal made by Kim himself during the Eighth Party Congress in January 2021. Kim ordered the launch of a spy satellite into orbit within a five-year time frame. However, Pyongyang experienced two failed launches in May and August this year.
But the strategic choice of Moscow and Pyongyang to hold the high-stakes summit at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, which has been a pivotal asset in Russia’s space program since its inauguration in 2016, introduces another dimension of importance to the Kim-Putin meeting.
Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the chosen venue is not merely about showing their intention to step up cooperation in space programs, including satellites.
“While that intention is undoubtedly present, the concept of space itself carries a highly future-oriented and progressive symbolism, such as advancements in science and technology,” Kim told The Korea Herald.
In that sense, the venue signifies that the summit is hoping for something larger than just a conventional arms deal or technological transactions between North Korea and Russia.
“The choice of venue reflects their aim for a future-oriented and comprehensive enhancement of their relationship, imbuing it with a deeper sense of significance.”
But the Kim-Putin summit at the cosmodrome, which comes amid repeated explicit warnings from the US, demonstrates the two nations’ intent to collectively challenge international law and order.
“Both are conveying a message that they are ready to proceed with their summit as scheduled, disregarding preemptive warnings or objections from the US and the international community,” Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University, told The Korea Herald when asked about the significance of the venue.
“Now, North Korea and Russia are signaling their intention to disregard UN Security Council sanctions and chart their own path,” Nam said.
The US has warned North Korea and Russia not to use the summit as the venue to facilitate arms trades between the two countries. The US has gathered evidence of North Korea’s alleged provision of arms transfers, including artillery ammunition, to support Russia’s unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has also been accused of transferring advanced technologies for weapons, including satellites and nuclear-powered submarines, to North Korea. Kim has directed the development of weapons as part of North Korea’s five-year defense plan spanning from 2021 to 2026.
Both the provision of weapons by North Korea and the transfer of technology related to nuclear and ballistic missile programs from Russia to North Korea are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. North Korea’s ballistic missile launches also defy UNSC resolutions.
North Korea also fired short-range ballistic missiles between 11:43 and 11:53 a.m. local time from the Sunan District in the capital city of Pyongyang, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
North Korea’s missile launches during its leader’s overseas trip is an unprecedented occurrence. The launches also came around one hour before the Kim-Putin summit.
“North Korea is conveying its resolute determination through missile launches in anticipation of the upcoming summit. This serves as a symbolic message, highlighting the country’s readiness to engage fully with Russia while displaying indifference to any US attempts of interference or containment,” Nam said.
Experts contended that the true significance of the Kim-Putin summit transcends their potential discussions about the arms trade.
“Russia has never held supremacy over North Korea; while the Soviet Union once did, Russia has historically played a minor role on the Korean Peninsula,” Fyodor Tertitskiy, a historian of North Korea and leading researcher at Kookmin University’s Institute for Korean Studies, told The Korea Herald.
“Nonetheless, if this deal materializes, it would mark a departure from Russia’s past, as it has not engaged in substantial trade with the North, unlike the USSR,” he said, referring to the Soviet Union, by the abbreviation of its official name, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Jeh Sung-hoon, a professor in the Department of Russian at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, further emphasized that the Kim-Putin summit signifies the beginning of a transformation in North Korea-Russia relations. Kim embarked on a three-night-and-four-day train journey from Pyongyang on Sunday afternoon to the Amur region to meet Putin.
This change comes amidst a shifting security landscape where South Korea, the United States, and Japan are enhancing security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
“The bilateral relations will be subject to adjustments in the future, depending on the direction of coordination among South Korea, the US and Japan,” Jeh told The Korea Herald.
“The summit can also be viewed as North Korea’s initial step towards actively and significantly participating in partnership with China and Russia, as a counterbalance to the trilateral alignment of South Korea, the United States, and Japan.”
Jeh also pointed out that Kim’s choice to break years of isolation with his initial overseas visit to Russia carries substantial significance. Kim embarked on a three-night, four-day train journey from Pyongyang on Sunday afternoon to the Amur region in Russia’s Far East to meet Putin.
Kim’s meeting with Putin marks his first foreign trip since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, effectively pausing his foreign engagements for over three years. His last foreign trip prior to this was his meeting with Putin in April 2019.
“It signifies that North Korea now places considerable importance on its relationship with Russia,” Jeh said.
North Korean state media also emphasized the strategic significance of bilateral talks between Russia and North Korea, while also belatedly reporting Kim’s arrival at the Khasan border station in Russia early on Tuesday.
“Respected beloved Comrade Kim Jong-un expressed his pleasure at visiting Russia once again, four years after 2019,” Kim was quoted by state media including the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s most widely circulated newspaper.
“He said that this visit, his first overseas trip since the global public health crisis, symbolizes the paramount importance our party and government attach to the strategic significance of the relationship between the two countries.”