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Putin and Kim hold meeting at a remote spaceport in Russia's Far East

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to Russia's Far East today. They're meeting in Vostochny, Russia's Cosmodrome, almost 5,000 miles east of Moscow. Russian state media say Putin gave Kim a tour of the space launch facility. Western journalists were not invited to this summit of authoritarians, so NPR's Charles Maynes is following from Moscow, and Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul. They've both followed this relationship for years, and they join us now. Good morning to you both.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Morning, Leila.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Let's start with you, Charles. What do we know about the meeting between Putin and Kim?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Kim's state visit comes at Putin's invitation, and the setting was designed to impress. North Korea has recently failed twice to launch into orbit its own spy satellites. And so it was with great interest that Kim got a close-up tour of Russia's Vostochny launch pad. Let's listen in a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, as Putin looks on, a representative of Roscosmos, the Russian space program, gives Kim a lesson, saying Russian rockets don't sit directly on the launch pad but are suspended by a harness, a pretty good life hack for launching a satellite or something else, if that's your aim. Later, Putin and Kim gave official introductory remarks. Putin didn't say much beyond thanking Kim for making the journey to Russia and saying all subjects were on the table. Kim, in turn, expressed his gratitude to Putin for the warm reception. Both leaders were notably accompanied by high-level military delegations, along with foreign policy and economic teams. That said, most of the content of these meetings is likely to remain secret. The Kremlin says there will be no press conference to speak of.

FADEL: Anthony, I want to bring you in here now that Charles has sort of described the meeting from today. Let's talk about the history of this relationship. North Korea has been a Soviet and Russian ally since its beginnings. What's different now in that relationship?

MAYNES: Well, there's been a sea change since the last time Kim and Putin met in Vladivostok in 2019. Back then, diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea was still alive, barely. Russia and China had voted for sanctions on North Korea in 2017, 2018, and Russian and North Korean interests just did not align as much. Now, with the war in Ukraine and the U.S. beefing up its military presence in Asia, that's all changed. North Korea is now more isolated, but also its military is a lot more formidable. And they emphasized that point today by launching two ballistic missiles for the first time with Kim out of the country, suggesting that a foe could take out Kim but still not be safe from his nukes.

FADEL: Interesting. So what does North Korea hope to get out of this meeting?

KUHN: Well, North Korea is really betting on its nuclear and missile arsenals to guarantee its survival. And Kim and Putin talked about cooperation on satellites, not missiles, but they both rely on rocket technology. So the U.S. argues that satellites are cover for missiles. And Russia has been reluctant previously about sharing advanced military technology, but some experts believe that's changing - for example, Hong Min at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think tank in Seoul. Let's hear him speak.

HONG MIN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "I believe the plan is for Russia to provide technical assistance to North Korea in stages," he says, "such as reentry technology for intercontinental ballistic missiles and advances in hypersonic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles." Obviously, Leila, that is a very threatening scenario for the U.S., South Korea and Japan, who would have to respond.

FADEL: Now, Charles, I have really the same question for you. What does Russia hope to get out of this meeting?

MAYNES: Well, this has all been framed as neighbors doing what neighbors do, deepening relations, developing ties in a range of areas. But the question is why now? And the answer is clearly Ukraine, Russia's wide - and Russia's wider conflict with the West that's come out of it. You know, well in advance of the talks, the U.S. said this summit was about Russia trying to gain access to North Korea's vast weapons stores, a desperate and dangerous Russian bid, in Washington's view, to resupply the Kremlin's military campaign in Ukraine, given that the war shows no signs of slowing down. So if indeed, as it appears, Russia is after North Korean arms, the question, as Anthony suggests, is what does Kim want in return, and what is Russia willing to give?

You know, Putin addressed this issue head-on today when he was asked by a Russian reporter. He said, that's why we're here at this Cosmodrome, an acknowledgement that North Korea wants Russian advanced technology. But there's a case to be made that there are limits to what Russian technology that might include. You know, Putin and Kim's opening remarks were made against the backdrop at the Vostochny Cosmodrome that featured, you know, orbital stations and satellites, but notably no rockets, no weapons. And Russia, as a nuclear superpower, in many ways, doesn't have a long-term interest in helping North Korea's nuclear program, if merely because it doesn't want to see the Korean peninsula, which borders Russia, after all, turned into a nuclear battleground.

FADEL: Now, the regional power that was not at this meeting is China. Anthony, what are its interests in any Russia-North Korea relationship?

KUHN: Well, it was interesting that Kim Jong Un's first post-pandemic trip out of the country is to Russia, not China. It has a far bigger economic relationship with China. So the suggestion is, I guess you could say, that Pyongyang is - you know, has other powerful backers besides Beijing. But some of the same factors that have driven Pyongyang and Moscow closer together have done the same for Beijing and Moscow, so I don't think Beijing is about to complain about the summit. But as Charles mentioned, like Russia, China also has concerns about proliferation of nukes on its doorstep. It is also trying to keep ties with the U.S. and Japan and South Korea from going off the rails. And that may temper its response to today's summit.

FADEL: Anthony Kuhn in Seoul and Charles Maynes in Moscow, thank you both for your reporting.

KUHN: Thanks, Leila.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Charles Maynes