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Kim might choose surprise route to Russia, South’s chief spy says

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In this photo released by Pyongyang's state-controlled Korean Central News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their last meeting in Vladivostok in April 2019. [YONHAP]
In this photo released by Pyongyang’s state-controlled Korean Central News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their last meeting in Vladivostok in April 2019. [YONHAP]

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could travel to Russia by a “different route than expected” for his meeting with President Vladimir Putin, according to South Korea’s spy agency Thursday.

In a report published earlier this week, the New York Times said that Kim plans to travel by armored train to Vladivostok, located on the Pacific coast of the Russian Far East, for talks with Putin about potential weapons deals to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other ways to deepen military cooperation.

But South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director Kim Kyou-hyun told lawmakers at a parliamentary intelligence committee meeting that “there is a possibility of Kim Jong-un making a surprise move by choosing a different route than what is expected,” according to People Power Party Rep. Yoo Sang-bum.

The NIS director also told lawmakers that the agency is closely monitoring North Korean and Russian moves ahead of the North Korean leader’s expected trip to Vladivostok and is sharing information with friendly foreign intelligence agencies.

According to U.S. officials cited by the New York Times, some 20 North Korean officials traveled to Vladivostok in late August, indicating preparations for a trip there by the North Korean leader.

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While it remains unclear what kind of deal the two leaders are seeking, Putin is expected to ask for North Korean artillery shells and missiles to fuel Russia’s war machine in Ukraine, while Kim could seek advanced technology for nuclear-powered submarines and satellites, which are both items on his previously announced wish list of sophisticated military hardware that his regime has yet to successfully develop.

Kim’s trip to Vladivostok — which would mark his first trip abroad since his visit to the Russian port city in April 2019 — is expected to take place sometime between Sept. 10 and 13, after a paramilitary parade in Pyongyang on Sept. 9 to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean regime.

A Chinese delegation led by Vice Premier Liu Guozhong will visit North Korea this week to participate in the celebrations, according to the North’s state-controlled Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Thursday.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Liu’s planned visit indicates Pyongyang is trying to deepen economic cooperation with Beijing while simultaneously strengthening military cooperation with Moscow.

According to a ministry official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, Liu “has a good understanding of North Korean issues” stemming from his tenure as governor of Jilin Province, which borders North Korea.

His policy portfolio also covers economic affairs, which the official said indicated that the North and China “appear to be focusing their ties on economic cooperation.”

But the ministry official also noted that Liu’s rank is lower than that of Li Zhanshu, who attended the 70th anniversary of the North’s founding in 2018 in his capacity as head of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China.

According to the Unification Ministry official, Liu’s lower rank indicates that Beijing “does not fully welcome deepening military cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow” because it would likely lead to Seoul, Washington and Tokyo further bolstering their defense cooperation, thereby raising pressure on Beijing.

Both China and Russia sent delegations in late July to North Korea to attend a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

While both Chinese Poliburo member Li Hongzhong and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu were photographed flanking Kim Jong-un at the July commemorations, only Shoigu and his retinue were seen being guided by Kim through a display of the North’s advanced weapons in photos released by state media.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]