From RBC Daily, Sept. 13, 2023, Condensed text:

DPRK leader Kim Jong‑un visited Russia for the first time in four years and met with Vladimir Putin for lengthy talks. Experts believe Pyongyang is primarily interested in rocket technology.

How did the talks at the Vostochny spaceport go?

Wednesday, Sept. 13, was the first working day of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to Russia. The president of the DPRK State Affairs Commission arrived in his train at the Vostochny cosmodrome, where he was welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Vostochny was picked as the venue for talks since North Korea has identified rocketry as one of its priorities in bilateral relations with Russia. “That’s what we’re here for. The DPRK leader is very interested in rocket technology. They are venturing into space,” Vladimir Putin told the media. . . .

In his welcoming speech, Putin pointed out that Kim Jong-un’s visit coincided with two key dates – the 75th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and 70 years since the end of the DPRK liberation war [i.e., the Korean War – Trans.]. “As you know, our country was the first to recognize the DPRK as a sovereign, independent state,” Putin stressed. . . .

In his opening remarks, Putin did not mention the amount of trade between the two countries, as he often does in his meetings with world leaders. Due to the sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN, nearly every kind of economic interaction with the country has been banned. In 2021, partly due to COVID restrictions, there was practically no bilateral trade – a meager $45,000. A year earlier, according to Russia’s Federal Customs Service, trade between Russia and North Korea amounted to $42.74 million. Russian exports accounted for $42.03 million of that amount. Nonetheless, the Russian president mentioned that the two leaders would discuss economic cooperation, humanitarian issues and the situation in the region. In total, this first meeting Putin and Kim had in four years lasted five hours.

How can the two countries work together in space?

The DPRK has long shown interest in space exploration. According to Reuters, the country has launched at least six satellites since 1998, two of which appeared to have been successfully placed in orbit. The most recent successful launch was in 2016. In 2021, Kim declared that North Korea needed its own reconnaissance satellite. A launch was attempted in May but resulted in failure. . . .

The 2016 launch was condemned by all of the world’s leading countries, including Russia. “Pyongyang refuses to listen to the international community and has once again demonstrated outrageous disregard for international law,” said a statement posted on the official Web site of the Russian Foreign Ministry seven years ago. At the time of the latest launch, the ministry refrained from such criticisms.

The US and its allies condemned the launch of the spy satellite as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions, which prohibit any development of technology applicable to Pyongyang’s ballistic missile programs. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, too, condemned the launch for the same reason. The Russian foreign minister, however, described the UN response as biased: “When the US conducts large-scale military exercises together with South Korea and Japan, there is zero response. Things are escalating: Step by step, the US keeps deploying new weapons, conducting large-scale exercises. North Korea has no choice but to respond,” explained Pyotr Ilyichov, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s department for international organizations, as quoted by RIA Novosti.

Putin’s comments before meeting Kim Jong-un may suggest Russia will seek to teach North Korea how to build satellites, rather than building them for North Korea, Lee Choon Geun of South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute told Reuters. It is unlikely that Russia can launch satellites on North Korea’s behalf, but if it does so, that will violate UN restrictions, Lee said.

However, the same sanctions can be interpreted differently, Aleksandr Vorontsov, head of the Korea and Mongolia program at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Oriental Studies, told RIA Novosti. According to Vorontsov, “the UN Security Council has banned all ballistic missile launches,” but “there have been two conflicting views regarding satellite launches.” The US and its allies claim that satellites are put into orbit by the same projectiles that can be used to deliver warheads. Russia and China, on the other hand, object that a missile launch means a surface-to-surface trajectory, whereas a satellite launch implies that the rocket takes off from the ground but doesn’t come back.

What do we know about potential defense exports from the DPRK?

According to Western media sources and US officials, Moscow needs North Korean weapons and ammunition for its ongoing special operation in Ukraine. When asked at the spaceport whether the two leaders would discuss potential arms exports, Putin did not give a clear answer. “We will go over all the issues. There’s no need to hurry. We’ve got plenty of time,” he said.

US officials have been repeatedly warning since November 2022 that Russia and the DPRK have stepped up their defense cooperation. Back in 2022, US officials claim, it was the Wagner private military company that made procurements from North Korea; by 2023, arms exports were going through official channels. [US] National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby claimed in March that Moscow was offering Pyongyang food in exchange for ammunition. Kirby said Washington was concerned about these developments. Any weapons deal with the DPRK would breach a whole series of UN Security Council resolutions, he said. Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, Aleksandr Matsegora, denied the allegations, saying it was out of the question that Wagner Group could have purchased any weapons directly from another country. He also added that Russia was well able to achieve the goals of its special operation without any deliveries from Pyongyang.

Kirby’s comments came after the US Treasury Department announced sanctions targeting Slovakian citizen Ashot Mkrtychev, the person who allegedly brokered the arms deal between Moscow and Pyongyang. Mkrtychev denied the allegations, saying he was only planning to export “flour, wheat, chocolate and some canned foods” from Russia to the DPRK. In August, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on three companies allegedly involved in North Korean arms exports: Kazakhstan’s Defense Engineering, Russia’s Verus and Slovakia’s Versor. Later in August, Kirby claimed that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had visited the DPRK in July in order to persuade Pyongyang to sell its artillery ammunition to Moscow. After Shoigu’s visit, Kirby added, another delegation from Russia visited North Korea for the same purpose.

Russia is particularly interested in artillery ammunition, Kirby told NPR, but it also needs components that would go into producing higher-grade weapons, like electronic chips.

According to the US-based security analysis company Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting), North Korea has long held massive stockpiles of munitions to both deter and prepare for a war with its rival, South Korea. “Estimates vary, although many experts put North Korea’s stockpile of artillery shells in the millions. However, a large portion of these shells are quite old and of questionable accuracy and condition,” Stratfor analysts say. They add that Kim Jong-un urged his top officials in mid-August to expand the country’s weapons production capacity. . . .

In 2020, the RAND Corporation released a report on North Korea’s conventional artillery, assessing the damage that a potential bombardment would have on South Korea. According to the analysts, three years ago Pyongyang had 4,800 medium-range artillery pieces with a maximum range of 25 kilometers deployed along the demilitarized zone and close to 950 long-range artillery pieces with ranges of up to 150 km.

Pyongyang’s military potential.

According to the 2023 edition of The Military Balance, an almanac issued by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the North Korean military has 1.1 million active soldiers and another 600,000 in reserve. It also has:

– over 100 strategic weapon systems (over 10 intercontinental ballistic missiles, over 30 medium-range ballistic missiles, and over 60 short-range ballistic missiles);

– over 3,500 battle tanks, including Soviet-made T‑34s, T‑54s, T‑55s and T‑62s, as well as North Korean tanks – Chonma, Pokpoong and Songun;

– over 2,500 armored personnel carriers;

– over 21,500 artillery pieces;

– 545 military aircraft;

– over 200 surface-to-air guided missiles. . . .