Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has said Moscow’s relations with North Korea have reached a “new level”, as concern grows over deepening military ties between the two countries amid the war in Ukraine.
Speaking on Thursday in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, Lavrov hailed last month’s summit in Russia’s far east between Vladimir Putin and the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as evidence that bilateral ties were at a “qualitatively new, strategic level”.
Lavrov also thanked Pyongyang for its support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as US officials claimed North Korean weapons were being sent to help the Russian war effort.
“We highly value your principled, unambiguous support for Russia’s actions in connection with the special military operation in Ukraine,” he said, according to Russia’s RIA news agency.
Lavrov arrived in North Korea on Wednesday on a visit that is expected to lay the foundations for a Putin-Kim summit in Pyongyang – with a date yet to be decided – that could see the heavily sanctioned countries agree to even closer military and economic cooperation.
Lavrov’s visit comes weeks after Kim travelled to Russia by armoured train to meet Putin for talks that are thought to have focused on weapon supplies and Russian help with North Korea’s space programme.
Last week, the White House said arms shipments had already started, with North Korea delivering more than 1,000 containers of military equipment and munitions to Russia in recent weeks. Moscow said Washington had no evidence to support the allegations.
Beyond Parallel, a website run by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said satellite images showed continued activity around a North Korean port near the border with Russia, and indicated that at least six sea crossings had taken place between the two countries since late August.
Earlier, it released satellite images showing what it termed an “unprecedented” buildup of train traffic along Russia’s border with North Korea. The flurry of activity “likely indicates North Korea’s supply of arms and munitions to Russia”, the group said in a report.
Analysts believe North Korea will have demanded a high price for the weapons, as well as access to Russian aerospace and military technology. The regime in Pyongyang has twice failed to place a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit, with a third attempt expected to take place this month.
Kim used his first trip outside North Korea since the Covid-19 pandemic, to describe relations with Moscow his “number one priority”, adding and that he saw the war in Ukraine as an attempt to challenge “hegemonist forces” seeking to undermine Russia’s security.
In response, the US and its allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, have stepped up their military cooperation. On Thursday, the US and South Korean navies joined four other countries, including Canada, for anti-mine exercises off South Korea’s coast, the defence ministry said.
In addition, a US B-52 bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons landed this week at Cheongju airport, about 100km south of Seoul, the Yonhap news agency reported.