Seoul, South Korea— A North Korean train presumably carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has departed for Russia for a possible meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, South Korean media said Monday. Citing unidentified South Korean government sources, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that the train likely left the North Korean capital of Pyongyang Sunday evening and that a Kim-Putin meeting was possible as soon as Tuesday.
The Yonhap news agency and some other media published similar reports. Japan’s Kyodo news agency cited Russian officials as saying that Kim was possibly heading for Russia in his personal train.
None of the details of the trip were confirmed by North Korea or Russia, but the Kremlin issued a statement Monday confirming that Kim was to pay “an official visit to the Russian Federation in the coming days,” at Putin’s invitation.
U.S. officials released intelligence last week that North Korea and Russia were arranging a meeting between their leaders that would take place within this month as they expand their cooperation in the face of deepening confrontations with the United States.
According to U.S. officials, Putin could focus on securing more supplies of North Korean artillery and other ammunition to refill draining reserves and put further pressure on the West to pursue negotiations amid concerns about a protracted war in Ukraine.
In exchange, Kim could seek badly needed energy and food aid and advanced weapons technologies, including those related to intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarines and military reconnaissance satellites, a senior South Korean official told CBS News last week.
Kim was last seen in public in images published by North Korean state media last week, attending the launch of what Kim lauded as the country’s first “nuclear attack submarine.” He suggested the vessel was capable of launching nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, though analysts quickly cast doubt on the veracity of the claims.
There are concerns that potential Russian technology transfers would increase the threat posed by Kim’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles that are designed to target the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
After decades of complicated, hot-and-cold relations, Russia and North Korea have drawn closer to each other since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The bond has been driven by Putin’s need for war help and Kim’s efforts to boost the visibility of his partnerships with traditional allies Moscow and Beijing as he tries to break out of diplomatic isolation and position North Korea as part of a united front against Washington.
The United States has been accusing North Korea since last year of providing Russia with arms, including artillery shells sold to the Russian mercenary group Wagner. Both Russian and North Korean officials have denied such claims. But speculation about the countries’ military cooperation grew after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made a rare visit to North Korea in July, when Kim invited him to an arms exhibition and a massive military parade in the capital where he showcased ICBMs designed to target the U.S. mainland.
Following Shoigu’s visit, Kim toured North Korea’s weapons factories, including a facility producing artillery systems where he urged workers to speed up the development and large-scale production of new kinds of ammunition. Experts say Kim’s visits to the factories likely had a dual goal of encouraging the modernization of North Korean weaponry and examining artillery and other supplies that could possibly be exported to Russia.
Some analysts say a meeting between Kim and Putin would be more about symbolic gains than substantial military cooperation.
Russia — which has always closely guarded its most important weapons technologies, even from key allies such as China — could be unwilling to make major technology transfers with North Korea for what is likely to be limited war supplies transported over a small rail link between the countries, they say.