North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Russia on Tuesday for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, amid warnings from the U.S. that the two countries could strike an arms deal.
Analysts believe that North Korea has tens of millions of compatible Soviet-era artillery shells and rockets that could be a huge boost for Russia's war efforts in Ukraine. Though these weapons are based on older technology, the sheer number of them could make them useful to Moscow.
Ammunition shortages have been an ongoing issue over the course of the war in Ukraine for both Moscow and Kyiv. In July, President Biden warned that Ukraine was running out of ammunition. For its part, Russia has previously turned to North Korea for weapons.
In December, the White House told Reuters that North Korea also sold military weapons to the Russian mercenary group Wagner. However, both Russia and North Korea have denied that such a transaction took place.
“It would be a ‘win-win’ deal for both, as Putin is cornered over his exhausted weapons inventory while Kim faces pressure from the South Korea-U.S.-Japan trilateral cooperation,” Nam Sung-wook, a former director of the South Korean think tank Institute for National Security Strategy, told the Associated Press. “Their needs are matched perfectly now.”
Officials identified in North Korean state media handouts appear to corroborate the military focus of Kim and Putin's upcoming meeting.
Kim appears to have been joined in Russia by Jo Chun Ryong, an official in charge of munitions, who has recently toured North Korean factories producing artillery shells and missiles, South Korea's Unification Ministry said.
Kim also appears to have been joined by Pak Thae Song, chairman of North Korea’s space science and technology committee, and Navy Adm. Kim Myong Sik, who is linked with the country's bid to acquire spy satellites and nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarines.
Kim's delegation also likely includes Foreign Minister Choe Sun Hui and Korean People’s Army Marshals Ri Pyong Chol and Pak Jong Chon, the Associated Press reported.
“This [meeting] is a very significant development if it goes forward,” Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told CNN. “Russia has the military technology that Kim wants for his illegal satellite launch and nuclear weapons delivery programs.”
Kim departed Pyongyang in a high security luxury armored train on Sunday afternoon. This is the first time Kim has left North Korea since the COVID-19 pandemic. His last time leaving the country was during the 2019 Koreas DMZ Summit organized by the United States under the Trump Administration.
Analysts say that in addition to advanced weaponry for North Korea's nuclear-capable ballistic missile program, Kim is also seeking food, aid, and other raw materials that are scarce in the poverty-stricken nation. The country faces serious shortages of essential goods after the government sealed its borders three years ago amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
North Korea and Russia have had strained relations in the past. In 2013, Russia supported two resolutions in the United Nations against North Korea for its nuclear tests.
Experts say warming ties are a sign that an increasingly isolated Russia has been forced to turn to pariah states for military equipment.
“It says a lot that Russia is having to turn to a country like North Korea to seek to bolster its defense capacity in a war that it expected be over in a week,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told the Associated Press.
In July, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shogu visited Pyongyang as part of a Russian delegation to North Korea’s parade on the 70th anniversary of the Korean armistice agreement, ended the fighting in Korea. While there, Shogu observed the Hwasong intercontinental ballistic missile along with other new drone designs.
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