South Korea has expressed “deep concern and regret” over a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin that was apparently focused on expanding military co-operation.
It came as the two isolated, nuclear-armed leaders align over their escalating confrontations with the US.
Washington has warned that the summit on Wednesday between Mr Kim and Mr Putin could lead to a deal to supply ammunition for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
There is widespread concern in Seoul that the North in return would receive advanced weapons technologies from Russia, including those related to military spy satellites, which would increase the threat posed by Mr Kim’s military nuclear programme.
“We express our deep concern and regret that despite repeated warnings from the international community, North Korea and Russia discussed military co-operation issues, including satellite development, during their summit,” said Lim Soo-suk, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
“Any science and technology co-operation that contributes to nuclear weapons and missile development, including satellite systems that involve ballistic missile technologies, runs against UN Security Council resolutions,” he said in a briefing.
Mr Lim also pointed out that Mr Kim’s delegation in Russia included several individuals sanctioned by the Security Council over involvement in illicit North Korean weapons development activities, including Korean People’s Army Marshal Ri Pyong Chol and Jo Chun Yong, a ruling party official who handles munitions policies.
Mr Lim said Moscow should realise there will be “very negative impacts” on its relations with Seoul if it proceeds with military co-operation with Pyongyang.
Seoul’s unification minister, Kim Yung-ho, who handles affairs with North Korea, warned that potential arms transfers between Pyongyang and Moscow would only invite stronger responses from South Korea, the US and Japan, which have been stepping up their trilateral security co-operation to cope with regional threats.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday that North Korea would face consequences if it supplies arms to Russia.
“No nation on the planet, nobody, should be helping Mr Putin kill innocent Ukrainians,” Mr Kirby said.
If the countries decide to move forward with an arms deal, the US will take measure of the arrangement and “deal with it appropriately”, he said.
He said that any deal that would improve North Korea’s military capabilities “certainly would be of significant concern to us”.
A day after giving intense coverage to the summit, Russian media outlets were silent on Mr Kim as of Thursday afternoon. North Korean state media have been reporting on his activities in Russia a day late and crafting their reports to support the government’s propaganda needs.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said on Thursday that Mr Kim invited Mr Putin during their meeting to visit North Korea at a “convenient time” and that Mr Putin accepted with “pleasure and reaffirmed his will to invariably carry forward” the history of friendship between the nations.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Mr Putin had accepted the invitation and said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to visit North Korea in October.
Mr Putin told Russian state TV after the summit that Mr Kim will visit two more cities in Russia’s far east on his own, flying to Komsomolsk-on-Amur, where he will visit an aircraft plant, and then go to Vladivostok to view Russia’s Pacific Fleet, a university and other facilities.
But his exact whereabouts remained uncertain on Thursday following the summit.
During their meeting on Wednesday at Russia’s spaceport in the far east, Mr Kim vowed “full and unconditional support” for Mr Putin in what he described as a “just fight against hegemonic forces to defend its sovereign rights, security and interests”, in an apparent reference to the war in Ukraine.
The decision to meet at the Vostochny Cosmodrome suggested that Mr Kim is seeking Russian help in developing military reconnaissance satellites.
He has previously said that is crucial to enhancing the threat of his nuclear-capable missiles, and North Korea has repeatedly failed to put its first military spy satellite into orbit.