North Korean leader Kim Jong Un departs Pyongyang for Russia in this photo released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un departs Pyongyang for Russia in this photo released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. (Korean Central News Agency, Korea News Service via AP)

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s visit to Russia is no “social gathering,” but signals Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desperation 18 months into his grinding war with Ukraine, a State Department spokesman said Monday.

Western governments are concerned the two may discuss an arms deal that reinforces Russian forces in exchange for weapons technology that advances North Korea’s missile and submarine programs, according to news reports.

The U.S. will “monitor very closely the outcome of this meeting,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters Monday in Washington, D.C.

“I will remind both countries that any transfer of arms from North Korea to Russia would be in violation of multiple [U.N.] Security Council resolutions,” he said. “And we … 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.”

Kim arrived in Russia by armored train early Tuesday, South Korean Ministry of National Defense spokesman Jeon Ha Gyu told reporters that day. Kim and his entourage of party officials departed Pyongyang two days earlier, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Tuesday.

The upcoming summit — the time and place have not been disclosed by either country — would be the first between Kim and Putin in over four years. The two leaders last met in Vladivostok, about 425 miles northeast of Pyongyang, on April 25, 2019.

Putin, his country isolated by opposition to its invasion of neighboring Ukraine and burdened by U.S. sanctions, is “looking for help from North Korea,” 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,” he said.

The New York Times on Sept. 4, citing unnamed officials from the U.S. and allied nations, first reported discussions by Russia and North Korea on a possible arms deal.

Putin seeks North Korean artillery shells and antitank missiles, while Kim wants Russian technology related to nuclear-powered submarines and satellites, according to the report.

Kim’s trip could “finalize a growing arms-transfer relationship in which Russia receives significant quantities and multiple types of munitions from [North Korea] for the Russian military to use against Ukraine,” Jung Pak, the U.S. deputy special representative for North Korea, said Monday at a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Washington, D.C.

The U.S.’ position toward North Korea has not changed, despite the communist regime having tested 19 ballistic missiles so far this year, Pak said.

“The United States has remained clear that we have no hostile intentions for [North Korea],” she said. “We are not seeking conflict. Our goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

David Choi is based in South Korea and reports on the U.S. military and foreign policy. He served in the U.S. Army and California Army National Guard. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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