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DEFENCE EXHIBITION

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un shows off banned missiles to Russian minister

A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un (C-R) walking with Russian Federation Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (C-L) during a visit to the Weaponry Exhibition-2023 in Pyongyang, North Korea, 26 July 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / KCNA)

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, Sergei 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”.

The nuclear-capable missiles are banned under United Nations Security Council resolutions adopted with Russian and Chinese support. But this week they provided a striking backdrop for a show of solidarity by countries united by their rivalry with the US and a revival of what some analysts see as their Cold War-era coalition.

In New York, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said that while the global organisation was not immediately able to analyse what was being shown, “all members of Security Council and, frankly, all member states of the UN share the same responsibility to uphold Security Council resolutions”.

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 delegations marks its first major opening-up to the world since the Covid-19 pandemic.

“[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.

The KCNA state news agency did not refer to the war in Ukraine but quoted Defence Minister Kang Sun Nam as saying that Pyongyang fully supported Russia’s “battle for justice” and protection of its sovereignty.

‘Common determination to oppose West’

Shoigu gave Kim a letter from Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledging that backing.

“Strong support from the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] for the special military operation in Ukraine, [and] solidarity with Russia on key international issues further emphasise our common interest and determination to oppose the policy of the collective West, which prevents the establishment of a truly multipolar, just world order,” it read, according to the Russian state news agency RIA.

State media photographs showed Kim and his guests at a display of ballistic missiles in multi-axle transporter launchers. Another image showed what military 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 US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“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.

Li’s visit showed Xi’s commitment to the North Korea-China friendship, Kim was quoted as saying by KCNA.

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 vowing to “resist US aggressors”.

Later North Korea held a widely anticipated nighttime military parade, an event expected to showcase its latest weapons, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

Pyongyang’s state media had not reported on the parade as of Thursday night.

US Concerns

Washington was “incredibly concerned” about ties between Moscow and Pyongyang, US State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said.

“Russia’s support for these unlawful weapons programmes – by blocking additional action at the UN Security Council, by participating in events in Pyongyang celebrating these weapons, by failing to crack down on DPRK sanction-evasion activities – all of this just highlights how detrimental [Moscow] has become to preserving international peace and security,” Patel said.

Washington says North Korea has shipped weapons including infantry rockets and missiles to Russia for use in Ukraine.

North Korea and Russia deny conducting arms transactions.

The Russian visit raises the prospect of more open support for North Korea, especially with Russia isolated by the West over its invasion of Ukraine, policy analysts said.

One 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 long-standing interest in preserving the global non-proliferation regime,” said Artyom Lukin, at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok.

The simultaneous visits by high-ranking officials were a 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.

(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim, Hyonhee Shin, Ju-min Park, Josh Smith and Soo-hyang Choi in Seoul; Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; and David Brunnstrom and Simon Lewis in Washington; Writing by Jack Kim, Kevin Liffey and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Deepa Babington, Richard Chang and Grant McCool.)

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