Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un during their meeting at the Vostochny cosmodrome outside the city of Tsiolkovsky, about 125 miles from Blagoveshchensk in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un during their meeting at the Vostochny cosmodrome outside the city of Tsiolkovsky, about 125 miles from Blagoveshchensk in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Vladimir Smirnov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo)

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called his country’s relations with Russia his top priority and pledged full support to President Vladimir Putin and his government amid the war in Ukraine, as the leaders met Wednesday for the first time in four years at a space facility in Russia’s far east.

Their remarks underscored the apparent message of the meeting: The two leaders, regarded as outcasts by the West, will back each other to the hilt, in a rebuff to U.S.-led efforts to isolate Putin over his invasion of Ukraine and Kim over his pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

The meeting follows months of U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia is looking get more of North Korea’s weaponry to replenish its dwindling supplies for the war in Ukraine, while Pyongyang is seeking to boost its beleaguered economy and get Moscow to share advanced technology for its satellite and nuclear programs.

North Korea is believed to have a large stockpile of dated artillery shells and rockets that would be compatible with Soviet and Russian weapons systems used in Ukraine, as well as a production capacity that would help Russia maintain its high ammunition burn rate as the Kremlin seeks to scale up domestic production.

Russia used up to 11 million shells in Ukraine last year, according to recent Western estimates, and is set to fire 7 million more rounds this year, said Jack Watling, senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

A potential arms deal would violate United Nations sanctions that Russia previously supported as a U.N. member state and permanent member of the Security Council.

“There are certain restrictions, and Russia complies with them. But there are things we can discuss and think about. There are prospects here, too,” Putin said when asked by a state television reporter whether the talks pushed the two countries closer in military cooperation. “Russia is a self-sufficient country, but within the framework of the current rules we have some opportunities, which we pay attention to and discuss.”

Russia’s need for help from North Korea, which is viewed by most of the world as a pariah, highlights how the war in Ukraine has proven far more difficult, and dragged on far longer, than the Russian leader anticipated. And while Putin has made clear he believes the West will grow exhausted and ultimately abandon its support for Ukraine, Russia is also facing difficulties in sustaining its troops and the invasion.

High-ranking Russian officials said they see no contradiction in Russia adhering to U.N. sanctions while entering “a new phase” of relations with North Korea.

“Russia maintains its position in the United Nations and the Security Council,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “But this cannot, should not and will not be an obstacle to the further development of Russian-North Korean relations.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled that Russia would continue to block further sanctions resolutions against Pyongyang.

“Sanctions against North Korea were adopted in a completely different geopolitical situation,” Lavrov said after the Putin-Kim meeting. He added that the reason Russia and China had blocked an additional U.S.-drafted sanctions resolution against North Korea last year was that the West’s promise to solve humanitarian issues in the country when the original sanctions were enforced turned out to be “another lie.”

For Kim, Russia could become an economic lifeline as North Korea grapples with financial hardship and food insecurity following pandemic isolation and years of sanctions.

The Wednesday encounter, covered extensively by Russian media, was replete with bonhomie after Kim’s arrival at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Amur region, where Putin took him on a tour of the spaceport before they held two hours of talks.

They then shared a protein-heavy spread for dinner: duck salad, crab dumplings, fish soup, sturgeon with mushrooms and berry dessert, according to Russian media.

Kim delivered remarks that amounted to a total endorsement of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and violation of recognized international borders. North Korea is one of just five countries that declined to condemn Russia’s invasion, and it has supported Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine.

“Russia is now rising to the sacred struggle to defend its state sovereignty and protect its security,” Kim told Putin, according to remarks in a video released by the Kremlin. “We have always supported and stand by all decisions of President Putin and the Russian government. I hope that we will always stand together in the fight against imperialism.”

This is a remarkable stance for the leader of a country that also shares a border with Russia, but perhaps not a surprising one given both countries’ poor standing in the international community: The pariahs have little to lose by banding together in the face of mounting global sanctions.

Putin heralded 75 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries and stressed the need for economic cooperation: “It was our country that was the first to recognize the sovereign, independent state of the DPRK,” the abbreviation of the official name for North Korea.

Putin greeted Kim as he got out of a black car at the spaceport, and the two men shook hands and exchanged greetings, according to a video released by the Kremlin on its Telegram channel.

“Did you have a good journey?” Putin asked Kim, according to the video. “Thank you for inviting us despite your busy schedule,” Kim said in return. The North Korean leader’s sister and closest confidante, Kim Yo Jong, could be seen accompanying him.

The Kremlin said the two leaders inspected cosmodrome facilities including the assembly shop of the launch vehicles for the Angara and Soyuz-2 space rockets.

Yuri Borisov, the head of Roscosmos, Russia’s state space agency, and Nikolai Nestechuk, general director of the Center for Operation of Ground-Based Space Infrastructure, described the Russian facilities to Kim through an interpreter.

The unusual choice of location could signal a focus on space technology, a priority for Kim.

North Korea last month failed in its second attempt at launching a military spy satellite and vowed to try again in October. The country’s space agency has been working on putting the satellite into space, to keep an eye on “enemy” military activities in real time. South Korea’s military studied the debris from the first failed launch in May and said the North’s satellite is not advanced enough to conduct space-based reconnaissance.

Putin said he hosted Kim at the site because he intends to help North Korea build satellites, Russian media reported — a stunning remark given Russia’s position as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and the council’s prohibitions on Pyongyang’s testing of long-range missile technology, including that used in rockets to launch satellites.

“The DPRK leader shows great interest in rocket technology, they are trying to develop space as well,” Putin was quoted as saying by Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

Kim entered Russia on Tuesday morning and was greeted with the fanfare of a military band and red carpet walkway when he crossed the border into Russia, marking the reclusive leader’s first international trip since the pandemic began.

Kim said his visit “is a clear expression of how our party and government put a high value on the strategic importance of DPRK-Russia relations,” Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency reported earlier Wednesday.

With Kim’s trip, friendship and cooperation between the countries would move to a “fresh higher level,” the report said.

Meanwhile, North Korea fired two suspected ballistic missiles toward the sea off its East coast, the South Korean military said Wednesday. Japanese media reported that the missiles fell outside Japanese waters.

Kim left Pyongyang on his famously slow-moving train on Sunday afternoon along with top government and party officials, state media reported. Those who appeared to board the train included defense chief Kang Sun Nam and munitions industry department director Jo Chun Ryong, according to an analysis of state media photos by NK Pro, a monitoring website based in Seoul.

Kim last met Putin in Vladivostok in 2019, two months after the collapse of U.S.-North Korea denuclearization negotiations in Hanoi, and as Kim sought to hedge his bets during negotiations of his nuclear program.

Kim has been expanding North Korea’s nuclear-capable weapons arsenal at a rapid clip since his failed summit with then-President Donald Trump, even as his pandemic measures constricted the country’s economy.

Now, Kim and Putin are looking to signal that they are banding together around shared interests in their respective standoffs with Washington.

Washington has previously accused North Korea of providing Russia with arms, including selling artillery shells to the Wagner mercenary group. Both Moscow and Pyongyang have denied the claims.

In July, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to North Korea to much state media fanfare and attended celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice marked by a military parade. He also sat at a concert where North Korean artists sang Russian pro-invasion songs.

Shoigu’s warm reception in Pyongyang, where decorated military officials stood holding red posters calling the minister “comrade” written in both languages, fueled concern in Western capitals that Putin and Kim were negotiating an expanded arms deal.

“We remain concerned that North Korea is contemplating providing any type of ammunition or materiel support to Russia, in support of their war against Ukraine,” the Pentagon’s spokesman, Brig, Gen. Patrick Ryder, told reporters on Monday.

In an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Vice President Harris said “it would be a huge mistake” for the two leaders to iron out an arms deal.

“I also believe very strongly that for both Russia and North Korea, this will further isolate them,” Harris said.

Ilyushina reported from Riga, Latvia. Min Joo Kim in Seoul, and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga contributed to this report.

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