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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is expected to travel to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin and discuss weapons sales to Moscow, a senior White House official said on Monday.
A meeting between Kim and Putin would point to a significant deepening of military ties between Russia and North Korea as Moscow’s occupying forces try to contain a counteroffensive in southern and eastern Ukraine.
Washington has grown increasingly alarmed at the possibility of expanding weapons trade between Moscow and Pyongyang at a critical moment in the Ukraine conflict.
“Last month Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, travelled to the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] to try to convince Pyongyang to sell artillery ammunition to Russia,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council. “We have information that Kim Jong Un expects these discussions to continue, to include leader-level diplomatic engagement in Russia.”
Watson added: “We urge the DPRK to cease its arms negotiations with Russia and abide by the public commitments that Pyongyang has made to not provide or sell arms to Russia.”
News of Kim’s plan to visit Russia comes as Ukrainian forces begin to make some progress in their counteroffensive to dislodge Russian forces, and as both sides in the conflict rapidly burn through munitions supplies amid heavy artillery shelling.
John Kirby, the NSC’s co-ordinator for strategic communications, last week said Kim and Putin had exchanged letters pledging to deepen co-operation. Kirby also outlined the terms of “potential deals” between the two countries.
“Russia would receive significant quantities and multiple types of munitions from the DPRK, which the Russian military would use in Ukraine,” Kirby said. “These potential deals also could include the provision of raw materials that would assist Russia’s defence industrial base.”
The New York Times first reported that US and allied officials believed Kim was planning to visit Russia to meet Putin. North Korea’s leader would travel to the east coast of Russia by armoured train for the meeting, which would probably take place at the annual Eastern Economic Forum in the city of Vladivostok, which opens on Sunday.
It would be the first foreign trip in more than four years for the North Korean leader, who crossed into South Korean territory in June 2019 for a meeting with Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in, then the presidents of the US and South Korea respectively.
Kim last met Putin in Vladivostok in April 2019, their only previous meeting. But the two leaders have grown closer in the wake of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, offering reciprocal material and diplomatic support as they grapple with UN and US-led sanctions.
A new arms deal between Kim and Putin would give North Korea an important role in the Ukraine conflict and highlight Russia’s difficulty in securing weapons through domestic production and from its limited set of allies.
On Monday the Russian defence minister confirmed Moscow was considering joint naval exercises with North Korea and China, in what would be a first for the Pyongyang regime.
“We discuss this with everyone, including North Korea. Why not? These are our neighbours . . . of course it’s being discussed,” said Shoigu, who visited Pyongyang in July, met Kim and toured a weapons exhibition that included North Korea’s newest reconnaissance drones and its largest nuclear missiles. Shoigu also attended a military parade alongside Chinese officials.
“We are already conducting [exercises] with our Chinese colleagues. Moreover, we have joint patrols of strategic bombers of naval units,” he said.