(Bloomberg) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un toured a Russian factory that makes fighter jets, as the US warned he is on a visit that could support the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine.
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Kim arrived in the eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur on Friday to see a facility that makes high-tech fighter jets and other aircraft. He was shown planes including the Su-35 as well as the Su-57 stealth combat fighter, according to a Russian government Telegram channel.
Kim’s limousine was later shown on social media being loaded onto the personal armored train that took him to Russia.
North Korea’s air force consists mostly of antiquated aircraft and is not considered much of a threat for the more sophisticated military equipment in the region operated by the US, Japan and South Korea.
Its most capable combat aircraft are a few MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters procured from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the US Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report. “The Air Force also maintains a large fleet of An-2 Colt aircraft, first produced in the 1940s, which are single-engine 10-passenger biplanes,” the report said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted an invitation from Kim to visit North Korea after the two met Wednesday at the Vostochny Cosmodrome space center in the Amur region for their first summit in four years. No date has been set for a visit that would be Putin’s first since 2000, when he met Kim Jong Il, the father of the current leader.
The visit to the space facility underscored some of the items that may be on Kim Jong Un’s wish list in exchange for supplying munitions to Russia. Pyongyang has failed twice this year to deploy a spy satellite and could be seeking assistance from Moscow in putting one into orbit. Kim may also be seeking technology that would help his regime’s nuclear warheads survive the heat from reentry to the atmosphere.
Putin said North Korea was interested in Russian space rockets, and his country would potentially be willing to help it build satellites, according to RIA Novosti, a Russian state-owned newswire.
“What we’re seeing right now is Russia in a quite a desperate mode and seeking support from North Korea, when it comes to ammunition,” Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said at a news briefing.
She added that while there hasn’t been a formal arms agreement announced, it’s something the US expects. “Providing any type of arms to Russia would, again, violate the UN Security Council Resolutions that Russia itself voted for,” she said.
The US for months has accused Kim of providing arms and ammunition to aid Putin’s war, including sending shells and rockets. While the US has said the weapons aren’t likely to alter the battlefield, they can aid in Russia’s bombardment of Ukraine, while sales could provide North Korea with a new stream of revenue for an economy isolated from much of world trade.
“Whether Kim and Putin actually got what they wanted, through the summit itself they sent a powerful message to the world that served both countries’ interest: that sanctions led by the United States and its allies are effectively dead, and US leadership on the world stage will continue to decline,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a regional issues manager at the Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network.
Kim is next expected to go to Vladivostok on Saturday to inspect Russia’s Pacific fleet and meet military officials, Yonhap News Agency of South Korea reported. After that, he may head back home.
Prior to the trip, the New York Times reported Kim may be looking for help in building a nuclear-powered submarine. Before leaving for Moscow, he attended the launch ceremony for what North Korea billed as its first “tactical nuclear attack” submarine that experts believe has a diesel-electric power system.
South Korea’s military expressed doubts about the capabilities of the vessel. North Korea has one of the world’s largest sub fleets but most of its boats are small, old and relatively noisy.
While Pyongyang and Moscow have denied US accusations of arms transfers, North Korea sits on some of the largest stockpiles of artillery and unguided rockets that could be used in the Soviet-era weaponry Russia is using to bombard Ukraine.
Seeking military aid from North Korea would mark a reversal for the two states. The Soviet Union was the biggest backer for Pyongyang after it was formed 75 years ago and supplied it with weapons that were essential in its invasion of South Korea at the start of the 1950-1953 Korean War.
–With assistance from Eduard Gismatullin.
(Updates with analyst’s comments in paragraph 12 and Kim’s transit in third paragraph.)
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