North Korea’s Kim Inspects Sanctioned Fighter Jet Plant in Russian Far East

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches a plane flying over an aircraft manufacturing plant in the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Khabarovsk region, Russia, Friday. (Government of Russia via Telegram/Handout via REUTERS)

MOSCOW/SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected a Russian fighter jet factory that is under Western sanctions on Friday, part of a visit Washington and its allies fear could strengthen Russia’s military in Ukraine and bolster Pyongyang’s missile program.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim discussed military matters, the war in Ukraine and deepening cooperation with Kim when they met at a summit on Wednesday.

South Korea and the United States said on Friday that military cooperation between North Korea and Russia was a violation of U.N. sanctions and that the allies would ensure there is a price to pay.

Kim, 39, on Friday visited aviation facilities in the far eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, the Yuri Gagarin Aviation Plant and the Yakovlev plant, both units of United Aircraft Corporation, which is sanctioned by the West.

At the Gagarin plant, which is also specifically sanctioned by the United States, Kim inspected the assembly workshops where the Sukhoi Su-35 multirole fighter and the Su-57 fighter are made, escorted by Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov, the government said.

Kim, dressed in a suit and accompanied by North Korean military officials in uniform, was shown on Russian state television carefully inspecting the cockpit of a fighter jet as Russian officials explained its capabilities via a translator.

He then inspected workshops where the fuselage compartments and wing assemblies of Russia’s Sukhoi Superjet 100 are made before watching a demonstration flight of the Su–35. He nodded with approval as the fighter performed.

Russia has gone out of its way publicise the visit and to drop repeated hints about the prospect of military cooperation with North Korea, which was formed in 1948 with the backing of the Soviet Union.

For Putin, who says Russia is locked in an existential battle with the West over Ukraine, courting Kim allows him to needle Washington and its Asian allies while potentially securing a deep supply of artillery for the Ukraine war.

Washington has accused North Korea of providing arms to Russia, which has the world’s biggest store of nuclear warheads, but it is unclear whether any deliveries have been made.

The United States and South Korea appear worried by the revival of Moscow’s friendship with Pyongyang which they fear could give Kim access to some of Russia’s sensitive missile and other technology.

U.S. and South Korean officials called on Moscow to show responsibility as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

“We agreed to work together to ensure there is a price to pay for the grave violation of Security Council resolutions,” South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Chang Ho-jin told a press conference in Seoul.

Bonnie Jenkins, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, who is visiting Seoul, said the United States strongly condemned the escalation of defence and political cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow.

“Obviously the recent reports of the potential sale of arms between North Korea and Russia is concerning. Any such transfer of arms would be a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” she said.

But it was not immediately clear what – if any – leverage the United States and its Asian allies such as South Korea and Japan would have over either Russia or North Korea, both which have close ties to China.

There was no comment from either Kim or Putin on the U.S. warnings, though Russian diplomats pushed back against the criticism.

They said that Washington had no right to lecture Moscow after the United States had bolstered its allies across the world, including with a visit of a U.S. nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine to South Korea in July.

The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday the Biden administration would not hesitate to impose additional sanctions on Russia and North Korea if they conclude new arms deals.

The Kremlin says it abides by U.N. sanctions but that it has a right to develop neighborly relations, including on sensitive topics.

Kim arrived in Russia on his special train on Tuesday, held a summit with Putin on Wednesday in Vostochny and appeared to have spent most of Thursday travelling before appearing in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, 6,000 km east of Moscow, on Friday.

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