North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, publicly flanked by a cadre of key military officers, has entered Russia via his armored private train following a lengthy journey from Pyongyang for a high-stakes summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Far East.
Putin's announcement on Tuesday that he will visit the Vostochny Cosmodrome space launch center in the region also suggests that the location is the likely venue for the meeting.
The move strongly signals that the focus of the impending summit will revolve around strengthening military cooperation, despite explicit repeated warnings from the United States about the potential consequences for both countries, including additional sanctions, in the event of arms transfers from North Korea to Russia.
Kim left Pyongyang on Sunday afternoon on his visit to Russia aboard his private train, accompanied by high-ranking officials from the party, government and armed forces, North Korea’s state-run media outlets, which cater to both domestic and international audiences, reported on Tuesday morning.
North Korean state media have not disclosed any specific details about the forthcoming Kim-Putin summit, including its agenda. However, the composition of Kim's delegation strongly suggests what will be the meeting's focal point.
Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea Ri Pyong-chol, who holds the highest-ranking military position and is widely recognized for his pivotal role in North Korea's nuclear and missile development, was seen as part of Kim's entourage in photos released by state media.
Pak Jong-chon, who serves as the director of the Department of Political Leadership over Military Affairs and holds the second-highest-ranking military position, was also seen in the company of Kim.
The other notable military officials accompanying Kim include Adm. Kim Myong-sik, commander of the North Korean Navy, and Gen. Kim Kwang-hyok, who commands the Air Force.
"Especially considering the significant presence of military personnel, we are closely monitoring the possibility of discussions regarding arms deals and technology transfer between North Korea and Russia," South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson Jeon Ha-gyu said on Tuesday.
South Korea's Unification Ministry also pointed out that the number of military officials in Kim's delegation has significantly risen compared to the number who attended his meeting with Putin in April 2019.
The ministry took note of the implications arising from the presence of Director of the Munitions Industry Department Jo Chun-ryong, and Pak Thae-song, who serves as the chairman of the National Non-permanent Space Science and Technology Committee responsible for space development.
Director of the Economic Affairs Department O Su-yong and Vice-premier of the Cabinet Pak Hun are also among the members of the delegation.
"There are concerns that the presence of Secretary O Su-yong, who oversees science and economics, and Secretary Pak Thae-song, responsible for science education, might lead to discussions in fields such as science, including matters related to satellites," a senior official said during a closed-door briefing conducted on the condition of anonymity.
The participation of Vice-premier Pak, who is responsible for construction affairs, also "suggests the possibility of discussions regarding the export of North Korean workers," prohibited by UN Security Council Resolution 2397.
Putin's visit to Vostochny
Both Moscow and Pyongyang maintained a notable silence regarding Kim's trip to Russia until Monday evening, Korea Standard Time. However, both sides briefly confirmed Kim's official visit to Russia at the invitation of Putin, while maintaining confidentiality regarding the date, location and agenda of the upcoming summit.
North Korean state media officially confirmed Kim's departure hours after his armored private train, distinguished by its dark green color with yellow trim, had entered Russian territory early on Tuesday. The approximate time of the entry was verified by South Korea's Defense Ministry.
The armored train made a brief stopover at the border station of Khasan on Tuesday morning, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported, citing an unnamed Russian official source.
Subsequent reports, including one from Kyodo, indicated that the train was continuing to move northward along the coast toward the Amur region in the Far East.
Speaking at the Eastern Economic Forum held in the far-eastern port city of Vladivostok, Putin on Tuesday said he plans to visit the Vostochny Cosmodrome space launch center in the Amur region.
His confirmation has increased the likelihood of the Vostochny Cosmodrome being chosen as the venue for the Kim-Putin summit.
The cosmodrome's significance in showcasing potential military cooperation, particularly in satellite and missile development, between North Korea and Russia, makes it a symbolically appropriate and strategic location for such a meeting.
Putin did not confirm whether he planned to meet Kim at the center but said, "When I get there, you will know," Reuters reported.
Putin initiated his two-day journey to Vladivostok on Monday, primarily with the aim of delivering a speech at the plenary session of the EEF on Tuesday. The order of Putin's itinerary suggests that his meeting with Kim Jong-un might occur following his address in the Far East region.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced Tuesday that the meeting between Kim and Putin will occur in the Russian Far East, Russia's state-run Sputnik news agency reported. Peskov said the two will have an official dinner, but there were currently no plans for news conferences associated with the meeting.
The Far East notably encompasses Komsomolsk-on-Amur city in the Khabarovsk region, which houses a significant military aircraft manufacturing plant and a shipyard dedicated to warships and submarines. The location holds historical significance as the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited these facilities during his trip to Russia in 2002.
The South Korean government sees a high likelihood of the summit taking place on Wednesday in the Far East, but it does not rule out the possibility of the meeting occurring later.
The looming Kim-Putin summit has drawn blistering criticism from the US and its allies and like-minded partners. The denunciation stems from indications that the central focus of the meeting might pertain to North Korea's potential supply of weapons, including munitions, to Russia in support of its unprovoked and full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Additionally, Russia has faced allegations of sharing advanced weaponry technologies, such as satellite systems and nuclear-powered submarines, with North Korea. Kim has overseen the development of armaments as a component of North Korea's defense plans spanning from 2021 to 2026.
South Korea's Foreign Minister Park Jin on Tuesday reiterated that the South Korean government has been actively reviewing countermeasures in anticipation of the outcomes of the Kim-Putin summit.
US State Department Deputy Special Representative for North Korean Affairs Jung Pak underscored on Monday that the impending Kim-Putin summit is expected to serve as a platform to facilitate and intensify arms trade between Moscow and Pyongyang.
"This can only be seen as the next and maybe final step in a series of conversations between Russia and the DPRK to finalize a growing arms transfer relationship, in which Russia receives significant quantities and multiple types of munitions from the DPRK for the Russian military to use against Ukraine," Pak said at a seminar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington.
The DPRK stands for an abbreviation of North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The US State Department on Monday re-issued a warning, emphasizing that both North Korea and Russia could face additional sanctions, underlining that any transfer of arms from North Korea to Russia would constitute a violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.
"We of course have aggressively enforced our sanctions against entities that fund Russia’s war effort, and we will continue to enforce those sanctions and will not hesitate to impose new sanctions if appropriate," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.
"I think the fact that Russia is having to beg North Korea for military support speaks to the effectiveness of our sanctions and our export controls, that they have been denied the technology they need and the raw materials they need to fund – to sustain this war effort."