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Putin and Kim put on a show as worries mount over what Russia might promise North Korea

When Russian President Vladimir Putin met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his entourage in Russia’s far east Amur region on Wednesday, it was a deliberate display of mutual support between two countries that are increasingly isolated and united in their hostility toward the West.

Location of leaders' meeting at Russian cosmodrome seen as symbolic

Two people standing in front of another person look up to the left.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin toured North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his entourage around the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's far east Amur region on Wednesday, it was a deliberate display of mutual support between two countries that are increasingly isolated and united in their hostility toward the West.

The fact that the meeting took place at Russia's newest aerospace site was symbolic, and Putin made it even clearer just how his country could help North Korea's military and space ambitions.

When asked by state media if Russia would help North Korea build satellites, he replied that the cosmodrome was the backdrop for the visit because "Kim shows great interest in rocket engineering."

While U.S. officials have warned that North Korea may be on the brink of supplying Russia with ammunition to help fuel its war in Ukraine, some political analysts believe another long-term threat lies in what Russia could promise its nuclear-armed friend in return.

"I think the worrisome part is that this relationship can last a long time," said Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at New York City's The New School.

Russia "can offer expertise. It can offer logistics … and certainly it can offer … nuclear know-how," added Khrushcheva, who is also the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union in the 1950s and '60s.

WATCH l Kim offers support for Russia:

Kim Jong-un says he backs Russia's fight to protect its sovereignty

16 hours ago

Duration 1:29

UPDATED: President Vladimir Putin welcomed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Russia this week. Kim offered support for what he called, according to a provided official translation, a 'sacred fight against hegemonic forces' — but what type of support will be offered is not yet clear.

Khrushcheva, who spoke to CBC in a video call from Moscow, believes that while the visit likely included substantive talk between the two leaders, staging a meeting in a remote corner of Russia was more about performance and a chance for Putin to show that there are still leaders willing to travel to Russia to "kiss the ring."

She said the meeting was typical of heads of state, given the pomp and circumstance.

"But also, it is harking back to the Soviets, train travelling, red carpet, Soviet-looking regiments that greeted Kim. Even in Kim's speech, it was all lofty communist rhetoric, 'holy war for security, 'fighting against imperialism' and so on," she said.

This was Kim's second visit with Putin, and his first trip outside North Korea since 2019.

Over the past two days, Russian media has promoted the visit, airing footage of Kim's armoured green train rolling into the country and heading north toward the remote forested region that hosts the cosmodrome.

Just an hour before the two leaders met, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles. They crashed into the sea off of its eastern coast.

Several people stand in front of a launch pad.

Location of meeting 'very significant,' professor says

Russian officials said the meetings included discussions around potential economic and agricultural co-operation, and that Kim's itinerary also included visits to Russian defence factories.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations at King's College London, said the visit sent a clear political message to NATO and the United States "that North Korea has Russia's back and vice versa."

The fact that the cosmodrome was chosen as the location is "very significant," Pardo said in an interview with CBC News.

"Russia is indicating that if North Korea needs help with its satellites and rockets … Russia would be willing to help."

WATCH l See Kim Jong-un arrive by train in Russia:

See Kim Jong-un's arrival in Russia

2 days ago

Duration 0:17

Russian officials posted video of North Korea's leader exiting his armoured train in Khasan, a station on the Russia-North Korea border. Kim Jong-un is expected to meet with President Vladimir Putin – although where the pair will meet is not yet clear.

Pardo also said it was an open gesture of support for North Korea's own space and missile program, and the fact that the North Korean delegation includes policymakers and military leaders is a big show of support to Russia.

This trip comes as North Korea has ramped up its missile testing and is working to successfully send a spy satellite into orbit. Two launches of the satellite earlier this year failed.

UN resolutions sanctioned North Korea

On Wednesday, Putin said Russia could co-operate with North Korea when it came to its military and technology and do it while abiding by international rules.

The UN has passed about a dozen resolutions sanctioning North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs since 2006.

Russia supported these measures, but last year, along with China, it voted against a motion to tighten sanctions against the country for its missile program, including the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

People talk in front of a rocket.

In July, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited North Korea and was photographed alongside some of the UN-banned ballistic missiles at a weapons exhibition.

U.S. officials criticized Russia's participation in the event and accused Pyongyang of shipping weapons, including rockets and missiles, to Russia.

North Korea and Russia have denied these claims.

Threat of more sanctions

Earlier this week, U.S. officials again warned that North Korea would "pay a price" if it supplied Russia with weapons, but the threat of more sanctions falls flat, Pardo said.

"I don't think North Korea's going to suffer any consequences."

Pardo believes any new UN resolutions will fail because they will be blocked by China and Russia, and North Korea is already heavily sanctioned and isolated from most of the world.

A person stands in front of a bookshelf.

Pardo, who recently co-authored a book on the history of North and South Korea, said Putin's and Kim's attempt to show their deepening relationship is part of a larger geopolitical narrative.

"There's this coalition of countries that clearly have an anti-U.S., anti-Western agenda that are strengthening ties with each other."

Weapons supply on the table, analyst says

While neither Pyongyang nor Moscow released any specific information about what was discussed during the meetings and dinner on Wednesday, Russian political analyst Sergey Markov said weapons supply was on the table.

Markov, whose frequently bombastic commentary is a fixture on state media talk shows, said Putin's wish list to Kim could include rockets and shells.

WATCH l U.S. troubled by burgeoning relationship between Putin and Kim:

Putin and Kim make a show of mutual support at summit

6 hours ago

Duration 2:02

North Korean President Kim Jong-un's train arrived in Russia's far east for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — a chance to show strong ties between the two countries and the potential for them to team up on agriculture, security and military cooperation, but they mentioned no specifics.

There are reports that despite ramping up its artillery production, Russia has burned through much of its stockpile during its 18-month war on Ukraine, and is resorting to ammunition produced decades ago.

Beyond a request for weapons, Markov said Putin could ask for Kim to send Russia hundreds of thousands of North Koreans.

He said North Korean soldiers could bolster Russia's military and fight in Ukraine, while workers could be deployed in crews to help reconstruct cities in territories occupied by Russia.

During his visit, Kim praised "Comrade Putin" and referred to Russia's war on Ukraine as a "sacred fight to protect its sovereignty and security." He added that he hoped the countries would always "be together in the fight against imperialism."

While Markov said he isn't sure what kind of military or technology Russia could give North Korea, he described the country's ambitions to develop more missiles that could reach "American cities" as "really good."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Briar Stewart is a correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart

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