North Korea fires ballistic missiles in leader Kim’s absence for Russia

North Korea has fired two ballistic missiles off to its eastern coast, as its leader Kim Jong Un and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin arrive in the Russian spaceport Vostochny Cosmodrome, for a potential summit where arms trading is most likely to dominate the agenda.

South Korea’s Joint Chief of Staff said on Wednesday that they have “detected two short-range ballistic missiles fired into the East Sea [Sea of Japan]”, hours before the potential Kim-Putin summit. The missiles were fired from the Sunan area, near Pyongyang, it added. 

Smiling at one another, Kim and Putin shook hands at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, according to footage broadcast by South Korea’s Yonhap News TV. 

While it is unclear on why North Korea has fired a missile before the potential summit, Pyongyang has historically shown a tendency to use such launches as its strategic tool against the democratic world. The missile launch may signal  the stronger ties between Pyongyang and Moscow against the United States and its allies in the region. 

The launch marks the “onset of comprehensive military collaboration between the two nations. This could imply a united front between the North Korean and Russian militaries against the trilateral security cooperation between the ROK, U.S. and Japan,” said Cheon Seong-whun, a former security strategy secretary for South Korea’s presidential office.

“Simultaneously, it shows that North Korea could still operate in Kim Jong Un’s absence. It acts as a deterrent against potential attacks targeting the North Korean leadership.”

The Kim-Putin summit is widely viewed as an effort by Pyongyang and Moscow to further cement their ties in the face of international sanctions pressing their economies. Russia is under sanctions due to its aggression against Ukraine, while North Korea is sanctioned for its nuclear ambitions. 

On his arrival in Russia on Tuesday, Kim stated that his government places “strategic importance” to relations with its northern neighbor, according to North Korea’s state-run Korea Central News Agency Wednesday, indicating a potential enhanced military cooperation between the two states.

Choosing the Vostochny Cosmodrome as a venue may also signal that bilateral diplomacy has now expanded to scientific and technological collaboration.  

The spaceport, located in the Far East of Russia, showcases Putin’s aspirations to transform Russia into a leading space power. The facility, whose construction began in 2010, was built with the objective of cutting Russia’s reliance on Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. Apart from being a launching site, the complex is positioned as a technological and economic hub, promoting advancements of Russia’s aerospace industry.

Given the symbolism of the venue, the summit may entail discussions to deepen cooperation in the aerospace industry. Enhanced cooperation in the sector may risk international security as it would most likely advance Pyongyang’s missile technology. Rocket technology can be used for both launching satellites and missiles. For that reason, the UN bans North Korea from launching a ballistic rocket, even if it claims it is a satellite launch. 

Edited by Elaine Chan and Taejun Kang.