Russian President Vladimir Putin, center right, and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, Thursday, April 25, 2019. U.S. officials expect Kim to visit Russia in the coming days to seal a possible deal on munitions as Moscow seeks to replenish its military machine by tapping Pyongyang’s huge arsenal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center right, and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, Thursday, April 25, 2019. U.S. officials expect Kim to visit Russia in the coming days to seal a possible deal on munitions as Moscow seeks to replenish its military machine by tapping Pyongyang’s huge arsenal. (Yuri Kadobnov/pool photo via AP)

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to meet in Vladivostok this week, their first summit since 2019, amid warming relations between the two countries.

The encounter is expected to take place on the sidelines of the annual Eastern Economic Forum, which continues through Wednesday in the Russian port city. Putin’s summit with Kim is likely to take place that day, according to South Korean analysts.

This will be Kim’s first known international trip since imposing a strict pandemic border closure in early 2020.

The two leaders are expected to discuss weapons, laborers and food transfers as both countries’ mutual interests align in their efforts to reduce U.S. influence in the region.

Here’s what to know.

Why are they meeting now?

The summit comes after months of U.S. intelligence assessments that North Korea is selling weapons to Russia to support Moscow in its war against Ukraine.

Kim and Putin are expected to discuss possible weapons deals to bolster Russia’s fighting forces, according to senior U.S. officials.

White House officials have urged Kim not to go ahead with the trip or sell more weapons to Moscow. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby has said Russia and North Korea are negotiating a possible agreement to deepen cooperation under which “Russia would receive significant quantities and multiple types of munitions” from North Korea for use in Ukraine.

Kim is the leader of one of the most isolated countries in the world and rarely travels internationally. Still, such a trip would have been highly unlikely only a few months ago, before North Korea began gradually easing its strict pandemic border lockdown.

Now, worsening economic conditions have pushed the Kim regime to seek external relief and to partially resume trade.

Russia, meanwhile, has helped enable North Korea’s nuclear and weapons advancements since the 2019 collapse of U.S.-North Korea diplomatic talks.

The upcoming summit underscores how the two isolated leaders see their interests overlapping, especially their respective standoffs with the United States.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kim has been openly supportive of Moscow. North Korea is one of five countries that declined to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it has expressed support for Russia’s illegal annexation of parts of Ukraine. It has taken this position largely for security reasons, said Atsuhito Isozaki, a professor of North Korean studies at Keio University in Japan.

“There have been differences in opinion over the development of nuclear weapons with its ally China, so it became increasingly dangerous to rely entirely on their relationship with China,” Isozaki said.

“Russia will serve as a counterbalance to China,” he said.

The evolving security relationship was evident in July, when Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to Pyongyang. Shoigu, who is overseeing the invasion of Ukraine, became the first Russian defense minister to visit North Korea since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Kim guided Shoigu through a defense exhibition featuring ballistic missiles that are banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions originally adopted with support from Russia.

What does Putin want?

The Kremlin wants more ammunition from North Korea’s stockpiles, as Russia’s reserves run low, unable to keep pace with the volume being expended in its war against Ukraine.

“Russia most of all needs munitions,” said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst. “No one expected there would be such a huge expenditure of shells. And the war in Ukraine has shown that we need high-tech weapons far less than a large amount of very cheap weaponry.”

“Very serious negotiations are going on, and if Kim arrives, then this will mean they have already agreed,” he said.

Russia’s defense industry has increased artillery production this year and is on track to produce 2.5 million shells, an increase from 1.7 million the year before.

But it is also set to fire 7 million rounds of artillery ammunition this year, said Jack Watling, senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. “There is a significant delta between demand versus supply,” he said, noting that Russia is also turning to other producers of cheap and compatible ammunition, such as Iran.

For Russia, he said, it is important to gain access not just to North Korea’s considerable stockpiles of ammunition but also its production capacity. The Russians “are already getting assistance [from North Korea]. But the question is whether this is limited amounts or a reliable, consistent supply” that would give Moscow “more assurance and planning,” Watling said.

North Korea has long held a stockpile of munitions that are compatible with Russia’s weapons. Fighting in the Korean War, between 1950 and 1953, ended with a cease-fire, and both Koreas have maintained a huge arsenal of artillery and other conventional weapons in case of war.

Of particular interest to Russia are artillery platforms such as the 152mm system and rocket launchers such as the 122mm and perhaps the 107mm systems, said Bruce Bechtol, an expert in North Korean military and counter-proliferation issues at Angelo State University in Texas. There are also other small arms and even tanks and armored personnel carriers that are patterned on Soviet designs, Bechtol wrote in 19FortyFive, a national security analysis website.

“The systems and ammo the North Koreans have supplied are all old, 1960s-era Soviet weaponry,” Bechtol wrote. “But the Russian army is a blunt instrument, not a force using precision weapons for the most part. That means these systems are very useful for Russian forces slogging it out on battlefields, particularly in Eastern Ukraine.”

And what does Kim want?

Kim is likely to seek economic aid and technical assistance to expand his weapons arsenal, experts say.

North Korea’s pandemic isolation has deepened its economic hardship and food insecurity. North Korea imported thousands of tons of wheat flour from Russia this year, and more could reach the North after the summit.

“Russia could help North Korea alleviate food shortages by sending more wheat flour and other food items like powdered milk,” said Kang Dong-wan, a North Korea expert at Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea.

Kim will also want to talk about sending more North Korean workers to Russia, where they earn much-needed foreign currency for the regime. Almost all of them work in manual jobs like construction or forestry.

According to the Kremlin-connected analyst Markov, this is a key area of mutual interest for Russia since its economy is suffering a huge shortage of workers thanks to ramped-up defense production and hundreds of thousands of Russians on the front lines in Ukraine or who fled to escape the war.

A study by the Gaidar Institute in Moscow found that 42 percent of enterprises surveyed complained of a lack of workers in July. “Russia is practically in economic turmoil right now because there are not enough workers. We need workers, but if North Korea is ready to send soldiers, too, this is even better,” Markov said.

Thousands of North Koreans are still thought to be in Russia in violation of U.N. sanctions that required all of the North’s workers abroad to return home by the end of 2019.

“The Kim regime wants to raise the number of North Korean workers in Russia from thousands to [the] pre-sanctions level of tens of thousands,” Kang said.

Russia has long used North Korean workers as a cheap and reliable source of labor. Russian officials have publicly endorsed a possible dispatch of North Korean workers to Moscow-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

Kim also could seek technological support from Russia to help develop new weapons systems, according to South Korean lawmaker Yoo Sang-bum, citing a briefing by the South’s National Intelligence Service last month.

North Korea has developed missiles in the past that bear strong resemblance to Russia’s. The North’s recent test of its new intercontinental ballistic missile raised questions about possible Russian technological support.

North Korea’s Hwasong-18 and Russia’s Topol-M have “nearly identical” physical dimensions and flight trajectory data, suggesting a technical cooperation sourced to Russia, according to a report published last month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank based in Washington.

“This potential transfer of the Topol-M missile or its technology would take cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang against the U.S. and Indo-Pacific allies to a new and more dangerous level,” according to the report.

Markov said Russia could consider lifting sanctions against North Korea. But Watling said such a move would be unlikely, as Moscow must guard certain know-how for itself. “The Russians want to keep sanctions so they have an excuse for not providing certain technology,” he said, especially in the area of satellites, in which North Korea is seeking further assistance.

Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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