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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Justin McCurry in Tokyo

US and South Korea sound warning amid reports Putin is headed to North Korea

Kim Jong-un and Putin composite image
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has hailed his country's ties with Russia, saying the two nations were ‘invincible comrades-in-arms’, amid reports President Vladimir Putin will visit Pyongyang. Photograph: Strsergei Ilyin/KCNA/KNS/AFP/Getty Images

The US and South Korea have warned Vladimir Putin against forging closer military ties with North Korea, as speculation grows that the Russian leader will visit the secretive state in the coming days.

Putin is planning to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in a reciprocal visit following Kim’s weeklong trip to Russia last September, media reports said. During that trip, the two leaders are believed to have agreed that North Korea would receive Russian help with its space programme in return for providing Russia with armaments for the war in Ukraine, in violation of UN resolutions.

Moscow has described reports it is using North Korean weapons and ammunition as “absurd”, but the debris from a missile that landed in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on 2 January was from a North Korean Hwasong-11 series ballistic missile launched from Russian territory, according to UN sanctions monitors.

Kurt Campbell, the US deputy secretary of state, told his South Korean counterpart, Kim Hong-kyun, this week that closer military ties between Pyongyang and Moscow would cause further instability in the region.

“While closely monitoring related developments, the two sides agreed to resolutely respond through airtight cooperation to North Korea’s provocations against South Korea and actions that escalate tensions in the region,” South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday.

Russia this week asserted its right to develop “very deep” ties with the North, amid concern that Moscow’s international isolation could encourage it to transfer missile and nuclear technology to Kim’s regime.

“It is our neighbour, it is a friendly country with which we are developing bilateral relations,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “We will continue to do so in an upward direction.

“The potential for the development of our relations is very deep. We believe that our right to develop good relations with our neighbours should not be of concern to anyone and cannot and should not be challenged by anyone”.

It is not clear exactly when Putin will make his first visit to North Korea since 2000, when he met Kim’s late father, Kim Jong-il. Officials at the presidential office in Seoul said it could happen “in the coming days”, while Russia’s Vedomosti newspaper said he would travel to North Korea and Vietnam in the next few weeks.

South Korean media said Putin’s trip could be timed to coincide with talks in Seoul early next week between South Korean and Chinese foreign and defence officials.

North Korea appears to be preparing to welcome Putin, who has embraced Kim as a key ally since Russia became the target of sanctions and international condemnation over its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Civilian aircraft have been cleared from Pyongyang’s airport and there are signs of preparations for a possible parade in Kim Il-sung Square, NK Pro, a Seoul-based website, reported this week, citing commercial satellite imagery.

The leaders, who first met in Vladivostok in 2019, have spoken of their mutual admiration, while Russia, along with China, has used its status as a permanent member of the UN security council to veto tighter sanctions targeting the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Earlier this year, Moscow vetoed the renewal of a key UN body that had been monitoring the implementation of punitive measures against the Pyongyang regime.

In a message to Putin this week, Kim said his country’s relations with Moscow had “developed into an unbreakable relationship of comrades-in-arms”, according to North Korean state media.

Experts believe that the North could use the visit to increase weapons exports to Russia, in exchange for food and energy imports.

“If Putin visits Pyongyang, there is a high possibility that North Korea and Russia could upgrade military cooperation to a new level at a time when they are maintaining close military ties,” Cheong Seong-chang, a director at the Sejong Institute, told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

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