Kim Jong Un and Putin sign mutual defense pact at North Korea summit

Updated

SEOUL, South Korea — Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a new pact Wednesday that includes a pledge of mutual defense if either is attacked.

The agreement was sealed at a summit in Pyongyang during a rare visit by Putin to the reclusive nuclear-armed state as both countries face growing confrontations with the West.

In a news conference after the summit, Putin said the agreement, which he called “a truly breakthrough document,” reflected the two countries’ shared desire to raise relations to a new level — covering security, trade, investment, and cultural and humanitarian ties.

Kim said it was a peaceful agreement that elevated relations to an alliance.

The comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries, both of which have been isolated by global sanctions, could expand transfers of military technology to Pyongyang in exchange for supplies of munitions that Moscow’s military badly needs for its war in Ukraine. U.S. officials previously told NBC News that such transfers could vastly enhance North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs and threaten the Asia-Pacific region.

Kim, who has been accelerating weapons testing and stoking tensions with U.S. ally South Korea, on Wednesday promised his “full support” for what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

A lavish welcome

Putin’s visit Wednesday, his first to North Korea in 24 years, comes as the Kremlin’s forces push for breakthroughs in Ukraine’s east and north while Kyiv’s defenses have been bolstered by new commitments from its own allies.

He arrived at midday for a welcome ceremony at central Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square, which is named after Kim’s grandfather and North Korea’s founder.

Standing before a large crowd of cheering civilians, Putin and Kim greeted officials on a red carpet outside the square’s main building, from which two giant portraits of them stared down. Military bands played the two countries’ national anthems, and children waved balloons and the Russian and North Korean flags.

Image: TOPSHOT-NKOREA-RUSSIA-DIPLOMACY (VLADIMIR SMIRNOV / AFP - Getty Images)
Image: TOPSHOT-NKOREA-RUSSIA-DIPLOMACY (VLADIMIR SMIRNOV / AFP - Getty Images)

Kim and Putin then left for summit talks at the Kumsusan Palace.

Talks between the two countries’ delegations lasted for about an hour and a half, followed by one-on-one discussions between Kim and Putin that went for an additional two hours, Russian state media reported.

The two leaders also exchanged gifts, with Kim receiving a Russian-made Aurus limo — the second one Putin has gifted him — a tea set and a naval officer’s dagger, according to Putin’s foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov. Putin’s gifts from Kim included busts and other artwork depicting the Russian leader.

Earlier, Kim was at Pyongyang International Airport to greet Putin upon his arrival in the early hours of Wednesday, shaking his hand and embracing him, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. He then accompanied Putin in his limousine to the Kumsusan State Guest House where the Russian leader would be staying.

The agency said the two leaders “exchanged their pent-up inmost thoughts” during the ride and that their meeting demonstrated the “invincibility and durability” of Russia-North Korea ties.

After signing the agreement, the text of which was not immediately released, the pair attended a state reception in Pyongyang.

Image: NKOREA-RUSSIA-DIPLOMACY (KRISTINA KORMILITSYNA / AFP - Getty Images)
Image: NKOREA-RUSSIA-DIPLOMACY (KRISTINA KORMILITSYNA / AFP - Getty Images)

Putin last visited Pyongyang in 2000 to improve ties with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, while the current North Korean leader’s visit to Russia’s far east last year offered signs of the deepening relationship.

The agreement Putin and Kim signed on Wednesday could “lay the groundwork for arms trade and also facilitate their anti-U.S. and anti-West coalition,” said Lami Kim, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

Officials in the West are concerned about weapons and intelligence sharing that could both help Putin’s army in Ukraine, and threaten the U.S. and its allies in Asia.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that Russia was trying “in desperation, to develop and to strengthen relations with countries that can provide it with what it needs to continue the war of aggression that it started against Ukraine.”

He said North Korea had been providing Russia with “significant munitions,” as well as other weapons for use in Ukraine.

U.S. intelligence officials believe Putin is providing North Korea with nuclear submarine and ballistic missile technology in exchange, six senior U.S. officials have told NBC News. The Biden administration, they said, is concerned that Russia might help North Korea complete the final steps needed to field its first submarine capable of launching a nuclear-armed missile.

Both North Korea and Russia have denied any transfer of arms, which would be in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions that Russia has supported in the past.

Russia ended the monitoring of U.N. sanctions against North Korea with a veto in the Security Council earlier this year that drew accusations that Moscow was avoiding scrutiny and joining China in shielding Kim from consequences for his weapons tests.

China, which is North Korea’s most important trade partner and is also growing closer to Moscow, has been muted in its response to Putin’s North Korea visit. On Tuesday, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said only that it was a bilateral interaction between Russia and North Korea.

The agreement with Moscow may give Pyongyang access to much-needed oil and natural resources for its decimated economy and missile program.

Image: NKOREA-RUSSIA-DIPLOMACY (VLADIMIR SMIRNOV / AFP - Getty Images)
Image: NKOREA-RUSSIA-DIPLOMACY (VLADIMIR SMIRNOV / AFP - Getty Images)

“Their cooperation will further undermine the effectiveness of sanctions,” Kim, the professor in Honolulu, said.

It’s also a personal victory for the North Korean leader, she said, as “being seen with a world leader like Putin would also be a huge win” for domestic propaganda efforts to elevate him to the cultlike status that his father and grandfather enjoyed.

“There’s economic gains and reputational gains,” she said.

After leaving North Korea on Wednesday, Putin is expected to visit Vietnam, which upgraded its relationship with the U.S. during a visit by President Joe Biden last year.

The U.S. rebuked Vietnam over the visit, with a State Department spokesperson telling NBC News: “No country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalize his atrocities.”

Stella Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea, and Mithil Aggarwal reported from Hong Kong.

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