(Bloomberg) -- The luxury armored train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Un crossed into Russia ahead of his summit with President Vladimir Putin, which the US said would focus on supplying weapons for Moscow’s war on Ukraine.
Kim’s train arrived in Khasan, a Russian border town, in the early morning on Tuesday, according to North Korea’s official KCNA news agency. It said the purpose of the trip was to put North Korean-Russian “relations of friendship and cooperation on a fresh higher level.”
State media in North Korea and Russia said the two leaders would meet but no official schedule has been released on the itinerary of the secretive North Korean leader. Kim could visit far eastern cities where Russia’s fighter jets are produced and a spaceport is located, Yonhap News Agency of South Korea reported.
The summit between the two leaders who have faced international isolation and sanctions marks the first time Kim has left the Korean Peninsula since 2019, when he held his only other summit with Putin — in Vladivostok. The meeting offers a chance for Putin to obtain weapons to fuel his war of attrition in Ukraine and Kim a chance to win assistance for his beleaguered economy as well as expand his ability to deliver a nuclear strike.
Photos released by North Korean state media show Kim is traveling with his foreign minister, top military officials and senior cadres in his weapons sector, indicating that munitions transfers could be on the summit agenda.
Putin and Kim are set to meet in the Russian Far Eastern region in the coming days, Russia’s Interfax agency reported, citing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. The two leaders will have a one-on-one meeting to discuss bilateral cooperation, state news agency Tass reported, also citing Peskov, who declined to provide the timing and location of the meeting. Kim and Putin will have an official lunch and won’t have a press-conference, Peskov said.
Separately, Putin will also have contacts with Chinese President Xi Jinping before the end of the year, Tass cited Peskov as saying.
Attention could quickly shift to Beijing if Putin goes to China for the Belt and Road Forum in October. It would be the Russian president’s first foreign trip since a warrant for his arrest on alleged war crimes was issued by the International Criminal Court.
The US for months has accused North Korea of supplying munitions to help Putin’s war in Ukraine, something Moscow and Pyongyang have denied. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told a news briefing that “pariah” Putin has failed to achieve his goals on the battlefield in Ukraine and is now “traveling across his own country, hat in hand, to beg Kim Jong Un for military assistance.”
The most obvious items Pyongyang has and Moscow needs are artillery shells and rockets that Moscow can use in the Soviet-era weaponry it has pushed into action in Ukraine.
North Korea has some of the world’s largest supplies of munitions, which Russia needs as it burns through its stocks of artillery shells. The US has said any supplies would not alter the course of the war and has told Pyongyang it would pay a price for any arms transfers.
But Washington has few points of leverage to deter two of the western world’s most implacable geopolitical foes from cementing ties.
Read: Putin-Kim Summit Prospect Underscores the Limits of US Sanctions
“The meeting is a recourse for two leaders on the precipice of desperation,” said Soo Kim, a former Korea analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency who now works at US-based management consulting firm LMI.
“Putin’s facing challenges in the war with Ukraine, including a shortage of artillery shells and weaponry,” she said adding, “Neither Kim nor Putin have much to lose in pursuing this meeting.”
Kim Jong Un may be seeking in return food aid as well as technology to help build a nuclear-powered submarine and deploy spy satellites. Any cash would also be of great help to North Korea’s paltry economy that is estimated to be smaller now than when Kim took power a decade ago, and which has sparse foreign currency reserves.
Nam Sung-wook, a professor who teaches socialist political economics at Korea University in Seoul, said North Korea is perhaps the only country Moscow can turn to for real help with its conventional Soviet-era weapons. He added a stream of munitions could aid Putin in prolonging the conflict, in the hopes of a change of administration in the US that would be less inclined to provide arms to Ukraine than President Joe Biden.
“Russia must have reviewed the downside of bringing in Pyongyang, but the situation is so urgent, and they cannot afford to care about any warnings from the US,” he said.
Discussions between Pyongyang and Moscow over North Korea providing further military support for Russia’s war in Ukraine are actively advancing, a senior NATO official said Monday. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited in July to request deliveries of munitions and the North Korean leader expects to continue those discussions, the official said.
Pyongyang, which has been banned from arms sales for about 15 years, rejects accusations it is supplying Russia. Yet the White House in December said it had evidence North Korea completed an initial arms shipment to the Wagner Group for use in Ukraine that included infantry rockets and missiles.
Seeking military aid from North Korea would mark a reversal for the two countries. The Soviet Union was the biggest backer for Pyongyang after it was officially formed 75 years ago and supplied it with weapons that were essential in its invasion of South Korea at the start of the 1950-1953 Korean War.
--With assistance from Natalia Drozdiak, Ryotaro Nakamaru, Jake Lloyd-Smith and Eduard Gismatullin.
(Updates with North Korea confirming arrival in second paragraph)
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.