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© Reuters. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un visit the Vostochny Сosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, September 13, 2023. Sputnik/Artem Geodakyan/Pool via REUTERS

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By Hyunsu Yim and Guy Faulconbridge

SEOUL/MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russian President Vladimir Putin said he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would discuss Pyongyang’s satellite program, among other issues, as they met on Wednesday at a cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.

When asked whether the two leaders would talk about obtaining supplies from the North to replenish Moscow’s dwindling stock of weapons and ammunition, Putin said they would discuss “all issues”. Washington and its allies believe defence cooperation is a top agenda item for the meeting.

“I am glad to see you,” Putin said as he shook Kim’s hand for around 40 seconds, welcoming him at Vostochny Cosmodrome, a modern space launch facility in the Amur region of Russia’s Far East. “This is our new cosmodrome.”

Kim, speaking through an interpreter, thanked Putin for the invitation and for the warmth of his reception.

The summit between the leaders of the two countries, which have become increasingly isolated internationally, is being watched closely by Washington and allies, who suspect they could agree to trade arms and defence technology.

U.S. and South Korean officials have expressed concern that Kim would provide weapons and ammunition to Russia, which has expended vast stocks in more than 18 months of war in Ukraine. Moscow and Pyongyang have denied such intentions.

The choice to meet at Vostochny Cosmodrome – a symbol of Russia’s ambitions as a space power – was notable, as North Korea twice failed to launch reconnaissance satellites in the past four months.

“That’s why we came here,” Putin said, when asked by reporters whether Russia would help Kim build satellites. “The leader of the DPRK shows great interest in rocket engineering; they are also trying to develop space.”

Kim has made it a top priority to launch a spy satellite, as he pushes his nuclear-armed country to step up the development of ballistic missiles, drones and attack submarines.

In footage released by RIA news agency, Kim and Putin are seen shaking hands grinning broadly, standing outside, surrounded by security personnel and Russian media representatives, before walking together into a gleaming glass-walled building.

Television footage showed Putin giving Kim a tour of the facility. Russian state television said Kim asked Putin a large number of detailed questions.

Russian media said Putin showed Kim around the building where Russia’s new space launch rocket, the Angara, is assembled. The 42.7-metre booster launches payloads into low Earth orbit.

Hours ahead of the anticipated summit, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles from an area near the capital, Pyongyang, into the sea off its east coast, South Korea’s military and the Japanese government said.

It was the first such launch by the North while Kim was abroad, analysts said, who has travelled outside the country only seven times in his 12 years in power, all in 2018 and 2019. He also briefly stepped across the inter-Korean border twice.

‘SENSITIVE AREAS’

Asked whether the leaders would discuss weapons, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the two countries cooperate in “sensitive” areas, which would not be made public, according to the Interfax news agency.

On Tuesday, Peskov said that Kim’s visit would be a “fully fledged” one and that the two sides would conduct “negotiations”. Humanitarian aid to North Korea and U.N. Security Council resolutions imposed on Pyongyang may also be discussed, Russian officials have said.

Russia’s foreign ministry said the talks are important considering geopolitical changes in the world.

“Bilateral contacts are very important. And the situation on the Korean Peninsula is, of course, of utmost importance for security and stability in the region,” state news agency RIA quoted ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying.

Kim arrived in Russia by private train on Tuesday with top defence industry and military aides and said his visit highlighted the “strategic importance” of the two countries’ ties, the North’s state news agency KCNA reported on Wednesday.

The make-up of Kim’s delegation, with the notable presence of Munitions Industry Department Director Jo Chun Ryong, suggested an agenda heavy on defence industry cooperation, analysts said.

Kim could offer artillery rounds from North Korea’s large stockpile, which could replenish Russia’s capabilities in the short term, but questions about the ammunition’s quality may limit the overall impact, military analysts said.

South Korea and the United States have warned such a deal would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, which Russia as a permanent member of the council voted to approve.

North Korea is one of the few countries to have openly supported Russia over the Ukraine conflict, and Putin pledged last week to “expand bilateral ties in all respects in a planned way by pooling efforts”.

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