Satellite pictures reveal North Korea is preparing for Putin visit

Experts say North Korea will seek weapons technology from Russia during a visit which could happen next week.
By Cho Jinwoo, Lee Sangmin and Kim Soyoung for RFA Korean
2024.06.14
Satellite imagery from June 6, 11 and 13, 2024 of Kim Il Sung Square in the North Korean capital Pyongyang appears to show that preparations for a ceremony to welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin are underway.
Planet Labs Inc.

Satellite imagery of Kim Il Sung Square in the North Korean capital Pyongyang appears to show that preparations for a ceremony to welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin are underway, a U.S. satellite expert told Radio Free Asia.

Putin is widely believed to be planning his first visit to Pyongyang since 2000, possibly as soon as next week. The trip has raised concerns that Moscow will provide advanced weapons technology to Pyongyang in violation of United Nations sanctions. 

The images released by private satellite company Planet Labs showed a main stage and several temporary structures, possibly for orchestral performances, built in the square, which serves as the site for important parades and events.

Other materials that looked like part of preparations for the welcome event were scattered around the main podium and the plaza.

“The two areas on either side of the square are staging pens that are holding flags and banners, as well as other decorative and construction materials,” Jacob Bogle, a U.S.-based satellite imagery expert, told RFA Korean. “The walled-off object in the square is likely for an orchestra tent, as has been seen in previous parades in recent years.”

Bogle identified other structures, including a reviewing stand that he said could be where Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might sit together and dine or watch a military parade.  

“Putin hasn’t visited North Korea since 2000, so holding a kind of “state welcoming parade” in the center of Pyongyang would be appropriate and would further signify just how important Kim's relationship with Putin has become,” he said.

South Korea has estimated that North Korea has sent as many as 3 million artillery shells to Russia to use in its Ukraine war.  Kyiv has also alleged that North Korea has sent missiles to Russia and these have been used against Ukraine, which Pyongyang and Moscow deny. The transfer of North Korean arms to Russia has been condemned by the U.S. and almost 40 other countries.

On June 12, NK News, a Seoul-based media outlet which specializes in North Korea, confirmed reports that planes on the runway at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport were moved to another location, which could be a sign that the airport is preparing for Putin’s arrival.

Putin’s visit is only a few days away, the South Korean President’s Office on June 12th told reporters in Kazakhstan, where the South’s President Yoon Suk Yeol was on an official visit.

The South Korean government emphasized on Thursday that cooperation between North Korea and Russia must not violate UN agreements aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, as well as sanctions aimed at limiting the flow of cash and prohibited technology to Pyongyang.

“Our government’s position is that exchanges and cooperation between Russia and North Korea must be conducted in a way that complies with relevant Security Council resolutions and contributes to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” Lim Soo-suk, a spokesperson for the South Korean foreign ministry said.

“Communication related to Korean Peninsula issues is maintained between South Korea and Russia,” he said, adding that the specific contents of the discussions could not be revealed.

Weapons tech, please

Former U.S. officials and North Korea experts say that the biggest issue of concern is whether Putin will agree to provide advanced nuclear and missile technology to North Korea.

“We know so little about what Kim has asked for from President Putin and what President Putin has offered Kim in exchange for the millions of rounds of artillery and the short range ballistic missiles that he is using against Ukraine,” Dennis Wilder, the former White House National Security Council's director for China, told RFA Korean.

Kim is likely to request additional military support and advanced technology crucial for the development of North Korea's strategic systems from Putin, Robert Rapson, the former senior official at the U.S. Embassy Seoul, told RFA.

Gary Samore, the former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction predicted that North Korea is likely to request military support from Russia, including advanced air defense systems, aircraft, missiles, satellite technology, and submarine technology.

The Kremlin said on Thursday that Russia has the right to develop closer ties with North Korea and that deepening ties should not be a cause for concern for anyone.

 “It is our neighbor, it is a friendly country with which we are developing bilateral relations,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. “We will continue to do so in an upward direction.”

Peskov declined to comment on President Putin's visit schedule and intentions.

The Chinese government also expressed its support for the development of North Korea-Russia relations, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian saying Thursday that China “Welcomes the fact that Russia is strengthening and developing traditional friendly relations with relevant countries.”

Translated by Claire S. Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Edited by Eugene Whong.

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