Russia’s Putin Meets North Korea’s Top Envoy as Arms Flow Builds

by Braxton Taylor

Russian President Vladimir Putin met the visiting foreign minister from North Korea for talks that could facilitate a trip to Pyongyang for the Russian leader and arms transfers to aid Moscow in its war on Ukraine.

Putin held talks with Choe Son Hui on Tuesday during a visit to Moscow, the Tass news agency reported. Choe also met counterpart Sergey Lavrov where he expressed appreciation for North Korea’s “support within the context of the special military operation in Ukraine,” Tass said, without providing further details.

Choe’s visit comes as arms transfers from North Korea to Russia appear to be increasing, with South Korea and the U.S. accusing Pyongyang of providing more than a million artillery rounds and its latest missiles to the Kremlin for use in its bombardment of Ukraine.

North Korea and Russia have repeatedly denied the accusations. But satellite imagery of North Korea’s Najin port near the Russian border taken from October to December shows a steady stream of ships, including Russian cargo vessels, at the facility.

The imagery also shows hundreds of shipping containers being loaded and unloaded, and rail cars ready to transport goods, which South Korea has said includes weapons bound for Russia.

North Korea’s official media has yet to comment on the meeting between Choe and Putin but said previously the foreign minister is due to finish her trip Wednesday. Putin pledged to visit North Korea when Kim met him for a summit in Russia in September, where he also promised to help Pyongyang with its space program.

The arms from North Korea deepen the pool of weapons Putin has at his disposal to attack Ukraine, replenishing stocks for Soviet-era artillery systems on the battlefield. Any payments for the weapons, which are likely valued at several billion dollars, could boost North Korea’s sanctions-hit economy and reduce pressure on Kim to return to long-stalled talks with the U.S. where he might win aid for nuclear disarmament.

In return for the arms, Moscow is believed to be providing technology and support for Kim’s military programs, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a visit to Seoul in November.

If Putin does visit Pyongyang, it would be the first time he has met Kim in North Korea. Putin traveled there once before in July 2000, to meet Kim Jong Il, the father of the current leader, who was at the center of international attention after he held a landmark summit in Pyongyang with then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung that raised hopes of rapprochement on the divided peninsula.

Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, has started the year by turning up the heat on South Korea, Japan and the U.S. Kim called for removing the concept of “peaceful reunification” with South Korea from his state’s constitution as he called Seoul a primary enemy and threatened to strike the U.S., if provoked.

Kim also tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile Sunday designed to strike all of Japan and U.S. bases in Guam. Pyongyang claimed it deployed “a maneuverable controlled warhead” that moved at hypersonic speeds. If true, this could help it evade U.S.-operated air defense systems in the region.

The U.S., Japan and South Korea are evaluating the missile. South Korean Defense Minister Shin Wonsik said in a radio interview that North Korea has made some progress in its hypersonic weapons program, Yonhap News reported.

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