Possible North Korea Visit by Putin Raises Military Ties Concerns

A possible impending visit by Putin to North Korea could deepen military ties in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, officials of South Korea and the United States warned
FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un visit the Vostochny Сosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, September 13, 2023.
FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un visit the Vostochny Сosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, September 13, 2023. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Kremlin via REUTERS

By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) -A possible impending visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to North Korea could deepen military ties between the two countries in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, officials of South Korea and the United States warned on Friday.

South Korea's vice foreign minister, Kim Hong-kyun, in an emergency phone call with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, said Putin's visit should not result in more military cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow in violation of the resolutions, according to Seoul's foreign ministry.

Echoing Kim's concerns, Campbell pledged continued cooperation to tackle potential regional instability and challenges caused by the trip.

"While closely monitoring related developments, the two sides agreed to resolutely respond through airtight cooperation to North Korea's provocations against South Korea and actions that escalate tensions in the region," the ministry said in a statement.

On Wednesday, a senior official at Seoul's presidential office said Putin was expected to visit North Korea "in the coming days". Russia's Vedomosti newspaper on Monday reported Putin would visit North Korea and Vietnam in the coming weeks.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday declined to give a date or agenda for a possible visit but said Russia's right to develop closer ties with North Korea should not be in doubt or a source of fear for anyone.

GROWING PARTNERSHIP

Russia has used North Korean-made missiles and artillery shells to attack targets in Ukraine, officials in Washington, Seoul, and Kyiv, as well as United Nations sanctions monitors and independent experts have said.

North Korea and Russia have denied arms deals but vowed to deepen cooperation across the board, including in military relations.

Speaking at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington on Wednesday, Campbell said the United States has a very good understanding of what North Korea has provided Russia, which he said has had "a substantial impact on the battlefield".

Less clear, he said, is what Russia has provided North Korea.

"Hard currency? Is it energy? Is it capabilities that allow them to advance their nuclear or missile products? We don't know. But we're concerned by that and watching carefully," he said.

In testimony in March to Congress, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said that Russia has been forced by its need for support in its war against Ukraine to grant some “long-sought concessions” to North Korea, as well as China and Iran “with the potential to undermine, among other things, long-held non-proliferation norms”.

Haines did not elaborate on her statement, but the reference to weakening non-proliferation norms appeared to be a warning that Russia could provide North Korea with military-related technology.

This growing cooperation and willingness to exchange aid in military, economic, political, and intelligence matters enhances their individual capabilities, assists them to undermine the rules-based order, and gives them some insulation from international pressure, she continued.

The U.S. intelligence community assesses, however, that these relationships – including that between Moscow and Pyongyang - will remain "far short” of formal alliances because parochial interests and wariness of each other will most likely limit their cooperation, Haines said.

POSSIBLE PREPARATIONS

Civilian aircraft have been cleared from Pyongyang's airport and there are signs of preparations for a possible parade in the capital's Kim Il Sung Square, NK Pro, a Seoul-based website, reported this week, citing commercial satellite imagery.

"It remains possible that the parade or large event will not coincide with Putin’s visit, but as Kim is likely to treat their summit with great importance, it’s also possible North Korea could put on a special event to celebrate Russian-DPRK ties at the square," wrote Colin Zwirko, a senior analytical correspondent with NK Pro.

In past instances, such preparations were made only days before the event, he added.

When Sergei Shoigu, then Russia's defence minister, visited Pyongyang last year to jumpstart the two countries' warming ties, he accompanied Kim to a parade and saluted as North Korea's banned nuclear-tipped missiles rolled by.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Jonathan Landay in Washington; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Gerry Doyle)

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