North Korea’s Kim Gets a Close Look at Russian Fighter Jets as His Tour Narrows Its Focus to Weapons

by Braxton Taylor

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un peered into the cockpit of Russia’s most advanced fighter jet as he toured an aircraft factory Friday on an extended trip that has raised concerns about banned weapons transfer deals between the increasingly isolated countries.

Since entering Russia aboard his armored train on Tuesday, Kim has met President Vladimir Putin and visited weapons and technology sites, underscoring deepening ties between the two nations locked in separate confrontations with the West. Foreign governments and experts speculate Kim will likely supply ammunition to Russia for its war efforts in Ukraine in exchange for receiving advanced weapons or technology from Russia.

On Friday, Russia’s state media published video showing Kim’s train pulling into a station in the far eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur and Kim’s convoy sweeping out of the station on the way to the city’s aircraft factory.

Russia’s Cabinet later released video showing Kim, on an elevated platform, looking at the cockpit of the Su-57 — Russia’s most sophisticated fighter jet — while listening to its pilot. Kim beamed and clapped his hands after a Su-35 fighter jet landed after a demonstration flight.

According to a Russian Cabinet statement, Kim visited a facility producing Sukhoi SJ-100 passenger planes as well. It said he was accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov.

“We have shown one of our leading aircraft plants to the leader of (North Korea),” Manturov said in the statement. “We are seeing potential for cooperation in the aircraft-making and other industries, which is particularly acute for solving our countries’ task of achieving technological sovereignty.”

Kim is to travel next to Vladivostok to view Russia’s Pacific fleet, a university and other facilities, Putin told Russian media after he met with Kim on Wednesday.

It was Kim’s first foreign trip since April 2019, when he visited Vladivostok for his first meeting with Putin. The 2019 Russian visit came two months after Kim failed to win badly needed sanctions relief from the United States during a second summit with then U.S.-President Donald Trump in Vietnam.

Kim’s earlier trip was likely primarily meant to seek Russian help to overcome the brunt of U.S.-led sanctions. But this time, Putin appears to be desperate to receive North Korean conventional arms to replenish his exhausted inventory in the second year of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Experts say Kim, in return, would seek Russian assistance to modernize his air force and navy, which are inferior to those of rival South Korea while Kim has devoted much of his own resources to his nuclear weapons program.

The summit between Kim and Putin on Wednesday took place at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia’s most important domestic launch center. The venue is likely linked to North Korean struggles to put into space an operational spy satellite to monitor U.S. and South Korean military movements.

Asked if Russia and North Korea could cooperate in space research, Putin said: “That’s why we have come here. (Kim) shows keen interest in rocket technology. They’re trying to develop space, too.”

Since last year, the U.S. accused North Korea of providing ammunition, artillery shells and rockets to Russia, likely much of them copies of Soviet-era munitions. South Korean officials said North Korean weapons provided to Russia have already been used in Ukraine.

On Thursday evening, the national security advisers of the U.S., South Korea and Japan talked by phone and expressed “serious concerns” about prospective weapons deals between Russia and North Korea. They warned Russia and North Korea would “pay a clear price” if they go ahead with such deals, according to South Korea’s presidential office.

The White House said the three national security advisers noted that any arms export from North Korea to Russia would directly violate multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, including resolutions that Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. council, itself voted to adopt. They reiterated their cooperation toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as well, according to a White House statement.

After a meeting in Seoul discussing the allies’ nuclear deterrence strategies, U.S. and South Korean officials on Friday stepped up their condemnation of the recent moves by Russia and North Korea.

Sasha Baker, the U.S. acting undersecretary of defense for policy, said that Washington will continue to “try to identify and expose and counter Russian attempts to acquire military equipment, again, to prosecute their illegal war on Ukraine.” South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Chang Ho-jin said Washington and Seoul, while tightening security cooperation, would ensure that Moscow faces consequences if it proceeds to help advance Pyongyang’s weapons program.

A possibility that Russian may aid North Korea’s nuclear weapons program stocked anger in South Korea, where some argued that Seoul could provide lethal arms to Ukraine in retaliation. But South Korea’s Defense Ministry said Thursday that its policy of not supplying weapons to countries at war remains unchanged. Seoul has far limited its support of Ukraine to non-lethal military supplies and humanitarian items.

Some analysts question how much Russia would be willing to share its closely guarded high-tech weapons technologies with North Korea in return for its conventional arms. But others say Russia would do so because of its urgent need to refill its drained reserves.

Putin told reporters that Russia and North Korea have “lots of interesting projects” in spheres like transportation and agriculture and that Moscow is providing its neighbor with humanitarian aid. But he avoided talking about military cooperation, saying only that Russia is abiding by the sanctions prohibiting procuring weapons from North Korea.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Putin had accepted Kim’s invitation to visit Pyongyang and that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to visit North Korea in October.

During Wednesday’s summit, Kim vowed “full and unconditional support” for Putin in what he described as a “just fight against hegemonic forces to defend its sovereign rights, security and interests,” in an apparent reference to the war in Ukraine.

Information on Kim’s trip to Russia is largely from the two nations’ official media outlets. North Korean media did not provide updates Friday on Kim’s activities. They typically report on Kim’s activities a day later, apparently to meet the need for North Korean propaganda to glorify Kim.

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Burrows reported from London.

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