North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at Russia's primary spaceport, the Vostochny Cosmodrome, in the Russian Far East on Wednesday, signaling a closer alignment between the two increasingly isolated countries.
Kim and Putin emphasized their shared commitment to supporting each other's internationally prohibited actions, including Russia's invasion of Ukraine and North Korea's weapons development, expressing their determination to elevate bilateral relations to new levels.
During the high-stakes summit that went on for three hours, Kim publicly reiterated his support for Russia's full-scale armed invasion of Ukraine, labeling it as a "just cause aimed to resist hegemonic forces to safeguard (Russia's) sovereignty and security interests."
"We have consistently and unconditionally expressed our support for the Russian government and President Putin in all our endeavors," Kim said. "We reiterate, on this occasion, our unwavering commitment to standing alongside Russia on the independent front against imperialism and will continue to do so in the future."
Kim's choice to break years of isolation, which had continued since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, with his visit to Russia itself carries substantial significance. Kim, accompanied by military cadres, commenced a three-night, four-day train journey on Sunday afternoon, covering a distance of at least 2,300 kilometers from Pyongyang to the Amur region in Russia's Far East.
The meeting also unfolds against the backdrop of mounting concerns regarding potential arms deals and weapons technology transfers between Moscow and Pyongyang, prompting international scrutiny.
But Putin did not hide the mutual intentions of Pyongyang and Moscow to enhance military cooperation, including the transfer of satellite technology with the potential to be used in the development of long-range missiles for North Korea.
Putin said that the venue was deliberately selected to assist North Korea in building satellites, Russian state-run media outlets reported.
"The North Korean leadership is interested in rocket construction, they are also trying to develop space technologies," Putin said, reported by Sputnik International.
Putin also answered both would "discuss all issues in no particular hurry" because "they have time" when asked by reporters whether military cooperation would be on the agenda topic for the summit. Later in the afternoon, the Kremlin said Russia's membership to the United Nations and its position in the Security Council won't be an "obstacle" to the further development of Russian-North Korean relations.
Putin and Kim began their meeting with a tour of crucial facilities at the spaceport, which included the Soyuz-2 rocket launch facility and the Angara launch facility, which is currently under construction.
"It is indeed an honor to have this opportunity to convene in such a unique setting at a launch site, symbolizing the core of space power, and to gain a deeper understanding of the current state and future of space power," Kim said, referring to Russia.
Park Won-gon, a professor in the Department of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University, characterized the essence of the summit as the "symbolic convergence of two diplomatically isolated nations, which would be displayed to its fullest extent."
But the strategic choice of Moscow and Pyongyang to hold the high-stakes summit at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, which has been a pivotal asset in Russia's space program since its inauguration in 2016, introduces another dimension of importance to the Kim-Putin meeting.
The transfer of satellite technology is crucial for the Kim Jong-un regime to realize the objectives outlined in its five-year national defense development plan, a proposal made by Kim himself during the Eighth Party Congress in January 2021. Kim ordered the launch of a spy satellite into orbit within a five-year time frame. However, Pyongyang experienced two failed launches in May and August this year.
But the transfer of technology could significantly advance North Korea's long-range ballistic missile capabilities. Space launch vehicles and long-range ballistic missiles, which can carry nuclear weapons, share certain technologies that are either identical or interchangeable. The primary difference lies in their payload: a space launch vehicle carries a satellite, while a missile carries a warhead.
The Kim-Putin summit at the cosmodrome, which comes amid repeated explicit warnings from the US, demonstrates the two nations' intent to collectively challenge international law and order.
"Both are conveying a message that they are ready to proceed with their summit as scheduled, disregarding preemptive warnings or objections from the US and the international community," Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University, told The Korea Herald when asked about the significance of the venue.
"Now, North Korea and Russia are signaling their intention to disregard UN Security Council sanctions and chart their own path," Nam said.
The US has warned North Korea and Russia not to use the summit as the venue to facilitate arms trade between the two countries. The US has gathered evidence of North Korea's alleged provision of arms transfers, including artillery ammunition, to support Russia's unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has also been accused of transferring advanced technologies for weapons, including satellites and nuclear-powered submarines, to North Korea. Kim has directed the development of weapons as part of North Korea's five-year defense plan spanning from 2021 to 2026.
Both the provision of weapons by North Korea and the transfer of technology related to nuclear and ballistic missile programs from Russia to North Korea are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. North Korea's ballistic missile launches also defy UNSC resolutions.
North Korea also fired short-range ballistic missiles between 11:43 and 11:53 a.m. local time from the Sunan District in the capital city of Pyongyang, according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff.
North Korea's missile launches during its leader's overseas trip are an unprecedented occurrence. The launches also came around one hour before the Kim-Putin summit.
"North Korea is conveying its resolute determination through missile launches in anticipation of the upcoming summit. This serves as a symbolic message, highlighting the country's readiness to engage fully with Russia while displaying indifference to any US attempts of interference or containment," Nam said.
But Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the chosen venue signifies that the summit is hoping for something larger than just a conventional arms deal or technological transactions between North Korea and Russia.
"While that intention is undoubtedly present, the concept of space itself carries a highly future-oriented and progressive symbolism, such as advancements in science and technology," Kim told The Korea Herald.
"In this sense, the choice of venue reflects their aim for a future-oriented and comprehensive enhancement of the relationship, imbuing it with a deeper sense of significance."
Experts contended that the true significance of the Kim-Putin summit transcends their potential discussions about the arms trade.
"Russia has never held supremacy over North Korea; while the Soviet Union once did, Russia has historically played a minor role on the Korean Peninsula," Fyodor Tertitskiy, a historian of North Korea and leading researcher at Kookmin University’s Institute for Korean Studies, told The Korea Herald.
"Nonetheless, if this deal materializes, it would mark a departure from Russia's past, as it has not engaged in substantial trade with the North, unlike the USSR," he said, referring to the Soviet Union, by the abbreviation of its official name, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Jeh Sung-hoon, a professor in the Department of Russian at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, further emphasized that the Kim-Putin summit signifies the beginning of a transformation in North Korea-Russia relations.
This change comes amidst a shifting security landscape where South Korea, the United States, and Japan are enhancing security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
"The bilateral relations will be subject to adjustments in the future, depending on the direction of coordination among South Korea, the US and Japan," Jeh told The Korea Herald.
"The summit can also be viewed as North Korea's initial step towards actively and significantly participating in partnership with China and Russia, as a counterbalance to the trilateral alignment of South Korea, the United States, and Japan."