Russia’s defence minister accompanied North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to a defence exhibition that featured the North’s banned ballistic missiles as the neighbours pledged to boost ties, North Korean state media reported on Thursday.
The Russian minister, Sergey Shoigu, and a Chinese delegation led by a Communist Party Politburo member arrived in North Korea this week for the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, celebrated in North Korea as “Victory Day”.
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The nuclear-capable missiles were banned under UN Security Council resolutions adopted with Russian and Chinese support. But this week, they provided a striking backdrop for a show of solidarity by three countries united by their rivalry with the US and a revival of what some analysts see as their Cold War-era coalition.
Shoigu’s visit was the first by a Russian defence minister to North Korea since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.
For North Korea, the arrival of the Russian and Chinese delegations marks its first major opening up to the world since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shoigu gave Kim a letter from Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean media reported.
“[Kim] expressed his views on the issues of mutual concern in the struggle to safeguard the sovereignty, development and interests of the two countries from the high-handed and arbitrary practices of the imperialists and to realise international justice and peace,” North Korean media said.
KCNA did not refer to the war in Ukraine but North Korea’s defence minister, Kang Sun Nam, was reported as saying Pyongyang fully supported Russia’s “battle for justice” and protection of its sovereignty.
State media photographs showed Kim and his guests at a display of some of the North’s ballistic missiles in multi-axle transporter launchers. Another image showed what analysts said appeared to be a new drone.
“We’ve come a long way from when North Korea would avoid showing off its nuclear capabilities when senior foreign dignitaries from Russia and China were in town,” said Ankit Panda of the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calling the tour “remarkable”.
“The personal tour for Shoigu – and Shoigu’s willingness to be photographed with Kim in the course of this tour – is evidence that Moscow is complacent with North Korea’s ongoing nuclear modernisation,” he said.
Kim also met Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Li Hongzhong for talks and was handed a letter from Chinese President Xi Jinping, North Korean media reported.
The visit by Li’s delegation showed Xi’s commitment to the North Korea-China friendship, Kim was quoted as saying by the North’s KCNA state news agency.
State media photographs showed Kim at a large flashy performance flanked by Shoigu and Li, with a backdrop that included a slogan used by the Chinese army during the Korean War pledging to “resist US aggressors”.
Later on Thursday, North Korea held a widely anticipated nighttime military parade in an event expected to showcase the country’s latest weapons, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
Pyongyang’s state media had not reported on the parade as of Thursday night.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Russia’s overtures to North Korea have come as the Kremlin struggles to procure arms.
“It’s been no secret … Mr Putin is reaching out to other countries for help and support in fighting his war in Ukraine. And that includes, we know, some outreach to [North Korea],” he said.
North Korea has backed the Kremlin over the Ukraine war and has shipped weapons including infantry rockets and missiles in support of Moscow, the White House has said.
North Korea and Russia have denied conducting arms transactions.
The Russian visit has raised the prospect of more open support for North Korea, especially with Russia isolated by the West over its invasion of Ukraine, analysts said.
One analyst said Shoigu’s inspection of the North Korean missiles suggested Russian acceptance of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
“It may signify that the current geopolitical circumstances are starting to erode Russia’s longstanding interest in preserving the global non-proliferation regime,” said Artyom Lukin, a professor at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok.
The simultaneous visits by high-ranking officials is another sign of a revival of the Russian-Chinese-North Korean coalition that originally existed in the late 1940s and 1950s, though now likely to be led from Beijing rather than Moscow, he added.
South Korea’s foreign ministry noted it had been Russia’s official position to oppose North Korea’s nuclear programme and said it hoped the visit by Shoigu’s delegation would help the North return to dialogue.