It is believed that while in Vladivostok, a port city not far from North Korea, the two leaders would discuss Kim sending Russia artillery shells and anti-tank missiles in exchange for Moscow's advanced technology for satellites and nuclear-powered submarines, according to US officials.
Washington has noted a concerted push by both Pyongyang and Moscow to deepen diplomatic ties, with the White House suggesting last week that arms negotiations were "actively advancing". The Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, visited the North Korean capital in July – alongside officials from China, Pyongyang’s largest trading partner – in the first such visit by foreign dignitaries since the Covid-19 pandemic.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Russia's Shoigu had tried to "convince Pyongyang to sell artillery ammunition" to Russia during the visit. Moscow is using thousands of rounds a day on the battlefields of Ukraine, as Putin’s invasion stretches into its 18th month.
Putin and Kim are said to have exchanged letters in the wake of Shoigu’s visit, where the defence minister was shown weapons by the North Korean leader – including the Hwasong intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). According to analysts from NK News, a specialist site focusing on North Korea, the display also included two new drone designs, including one resembling the primary offensive strike drone used by the US Air Force.
Kirby said the letters between Kim and Putin were “more at the surface level,” but the North Korean leader is known for sending effusive letters to other world leaders he considers allies – or at least useful. In June, Kim sent a message to Putin marking Russia’s national day, where he said he would “hold hands” with the Russian leader and that the nation had the full support of North Korea’s people.
The Kremlin said last week that Moscow intends to deepen its "mutually respectful relations" with Pyongyang, one of its close Cold War allies and also one of a small handful of countries to back Russia's proclaimed annexation of parts of Ukraine in 2022.
Putin is also not adverse to such glad-handing. He has touted his close relationship with China’s President Xi Jinping, going as far as to call it a personal friendship.
Russia has said it is also discussing holding joint military exercises with North Korea and China. "Why not, these are our neighbours. There's an old Russian saying: you don't choose your neighbours and it's better to live with your neighbours in peace and harmony," Interfax news agency quoted Shoigu, as saying on Monday.
Behind the flowery diplomatic language, both Kim and Putin will see the advantage to striking a deal. Pyongyang is desperate for both new technology and money or trade to help feed its people – while Russia needs all the weapons and ammunition it can as it pours money and resources into the war in Ukraine.
In terms of details of the would-be trip, it would be unusual if Kim did not travel by armoured train. Kim's father, the reclusive Kim Jong Il, famously shunned planes and travelled by armoured train only, a habit his son has picked up. The late Kim last visited Russia just months before his death in 2011.
Kim visted Vladivostock in 2019, his first visit to Russia and likely the last time he left North Korea. Images from the time show him stepping off the distinctive green train while every surface he might touch was wiped beforehand by his team of assistants.
Both Putin and Kim could be on the campus of Vladivostok’s Far Eastern Federal University to attend the Eastern Economic Forum, scheduled to take place from 10-13 September, according to The New York Times. The date of travel or exact place of meeting, however, is not yet clear.
The US has previously warned North Korea could supply more weapons to Russia, with US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson noting that they expect talks to continue.
“We have information that Kim Jong Un expects these discussions to continue, to include leader-level diplomatic engagement in Russia,” she said.
She said the US is urging North Korea “to cease its arms negotiations with Russia and abide by the public commitments that Pyongyang has made to not provide or sell arms to Russia”.
Kirby also warned of sanctions against Pyongyang if it goes ahead with the weapons supply.
Additional reporting by agencies