North Korea's Kim Jong Un was in Russia on a rare overseas visit Tuesday ahead of a meeting with president Vladimir Putin, sparking warnings from Washington over a possible arms deal for Moscow's war in Ukraine.
Wearing a black suit and flanked by uniformed defence officials, North Korean state media images showed an unsmiling Kim waving from the doorway of his heavily-armoured private train with green-and-gold livery as it departed Pyongyang station Sunday evening.
Russian state news agency Ria Novosti confirmed Kim's train had crossed the border into the Primorsky region, with images showing a train with dark green carriages being pulled along a track by a Russian Railways locomotive.
Kim will meet Putin in the Far East later this week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said according to Ria Novosti.
It is possible the pair will meet on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, the Far East city closest to the North Korea-Russia border. The forum runs until Wednesday.
Experts say Moscow will likely seek artillery shells and antitank missiles from North Korea, which wants advanced satellite and nuclear-powered submarine technology in return.
Accompanied by top North Korean military officials, including officials in charge of weapons production and space technology, Kim "left here by his train on Sunday afternoon to visit the Russian Federation," the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)
KCNA images showed Kim's being given a "warm send-off" complete with red carpet and honour guard at Pyongyang station at around 18h38 (0938 GMT).
Kim has been steadfast in his support for Moscow's Ukraine invasion, including, Washington says, supplying rockets and missiles. In July, Putin hailed Pyongyang's "firm support for special military operations against Ukraine".
But both Moscow and Pyongyang have denied North Korea has or will supply arms to Russia, which has eaten into its vast stockpiles of munitions fighting since it invaded Ukraine early last year.
Kim has not travelled outside the North since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. His last proper overseas trip was in 2019, also to Russia to meet Putin.
Moscow, a historical ally of Pyongyang, was a crucial backer of the isolated country for decades and their ties go back to the founding of North Korea 75 years ago.
'Begging' for help
"Given his interest in exploiting 'new Cold War' geopolitics and a preference for travelling by train for personal security, it is unsurprising Kim chose Russia as his first post-pandemic destination," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
"North Korea has the crude ammunition that Putin needs for his illegal war in Ukraine, while Moscow has submarine, ballistic, and satellite technologies that could help Pyongyang leapfrog engineering challenges it suffers under economic sanctions," he said.
Even if an arms deal does result from the Putin-Kim summit, it is unlikely either side will make public the full details due to the "serious international legal violations involved," he added.
The White House recently warned that Pyongyang would "pay a price" if it supplies Moscow with weaponry for its war in Ukraine. On Monday the United States described Putin as desperate in seeking a meeting with Kim.
"Having to travel across the length of his own country to meet with an international pariah to ask for assistance in a war that he expected to win in the opening month, I would characterise it as him begging for assistance," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.
Washington has said Russia could use weapons from North Korea to attack Ukrainian food supplies and heating infrastructure heading into winter to "try to conquer territory that belongs to another sovereign nation".
Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, told AFP that a Putin-Kim summit was part of Moscow's "gentle diplomatic blackmail" of Seoul because Russia did not want South Korea to supply weapons to Kyiv.
Seoul is a major arms exporter and has sold tanks to Kyiv's ally Poland, but longstanding domestic policy bars it from selling weapons into active conflicts.
"The major worry of the Russian government now is a possible shipment of the South Korean ammunition to Ukraine, not just one shipment but a lot of shipments," Lankov said.