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Putin says Russia and North Korea will help each other if attacked, taking ties to a ‘new level’

By Simone McCarthy, Manveena Suri, Lucas Lilieholm and Radina Gigova, CNN

(CNN) — Vladimir Putin said Russia and North Korea have ramped up ties to a “new level,” pledging to help each other if either nation is attacked in a “breakthrough” new partnership announced during the Russian president’s rare visit to the reclusive state.

Thousands of North Koreans chanting “welcome Putin” lined the city’s wide boulevards brandishing Russian and North Korean flags and bouquets of flowers, as Putin kicked off his first visit to North Korea in 24 years with a finely choreographed display of influence in the dictatorship.

The pair then signed the new strategic partnership to replace previous deals signed in 1961, 2000 and 2001, according to Russian state news agency TASS. “The comprehensive partnership agreement signed today includes, among other things, the provision of mutual assistance in the event of aggression against one of the parties to this agreement,” Putin said after the meeting.

He said the deal encompasses the “political, trade, investment, cultural spheres, and the security sphere as well,” calling the pact “truly a breakthrough document.”

Putin said joint drills involving the United States, South Korea and Japan were “hostile” toward North Korea,” characterizing the US policy as “confrontational.” Kim, meanwhile, called the new “alliance” a “watershed moment in the development of the bilateral relations.”

But the deal between the two autocrats raised many questions, too – including whether Russia’s nuclear deterrent now extends to North Korea, and vice versa, or whether the two nations will now hold joint military drills.

Putin greeted with fanfare

Putin was met with exuberant celebrations at a welcome ceremony with his counterpart at Kim Il Sung Square in the heart of the North Korean capital, where mounted soldiers, military personnel and children holding balloons cheered against the backdrop of large portraits of the each leader.

The two leaders presented their respective officials and stood together as the Russian national anthem played before riding off standing shoulder to shoulder in an open-top limousine as they smiled and waved to the crowds. The scenes of pomp and fanfare were a constant throughout the day, which closed with Kim escorting Putin to his plane late in the evening ahead of his trip to Vietnam.

The staging reflected North Korea’s reliance on Moscow and was likely intended as a reminder to the West that Putin still holds considerable influence in at least some corners of the world, after his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

The relationship is important to Russia, too. Multiple governments have accused Pyongyang of supplying arms to Moscow for its grinding war in Ukraine, a charge both countries have denied, despite significant evidence of such transfers.

On Wednesday Putin gave Kim an Aurus car when the two leaders exchanged gifts, according to Russian state media – the second time Putin has given his counterpart this car model. According to Putin’s aide Yuri Ushakov, the Russian leader also presented Kim with a tea set. Ushakov did not specify what Putin received, but said they were “also good gifts.”

Putin landed in North Korea in the early hours of Wednesday local time, exactly 24 years to the day he was last in Pyongyang, for a visit heralding the countries’ deepening alignment in the face of shared animosity toward the West and international concerns over their growing military cooperation.

In remarks ahead of talks between the two, Kim voiced his “full support and solidarity with the struggles of the Russian government, military and the people,” pointing specifically to Moscow’s war in Ukraine “to protect its own sovereignty, safety and territorial stability.”

“Situations continue to be complicated and ever-changing, but I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate that we will continue to strengthen and closely engage in strategic communication with the (Russian) leadership,” Kim added.

Putin hailed the countries’ ties as based on “equality and mutual respect,” and said an expected new bilateral agreement would “form the basis of relations between the two states for many years to come,” according to Russian state agency TASS. He also added that he hoped Kim would visit Moscow for their next meeting.

The burgeoning relationship has sparked concern in both Seoul and Washington, not only over North Korea’s arms transfers to Russia, but also the prospect of Moscow transferring its superior military technology to aid Pyongyang’s heavily sanctioned weapons program.

‘Unwavering support’

Kim, the third generation leader of a dynasty that has ruled North Korea with an iron fist, beamed visibly as he greeted Putin at the airport in the early hours of Wednesday morning, video footage of the Russian leader’s arrival showed.

The landmark visit marks a significant boost for Kim, who remains isolated on the world stage and has not hosted another world leader in his capital since the pandemic.

It comes as tensions remain elevated on the Korean Peninsula, where Kim in recent months has ramped up bellicose language and scrapped a longstanding policy of seeking peaceful reunification with South Korea amid alarm in Pyongyang over tightening coordination between the US, South Korea and Japan.

North Korea state media appeared to play heavily into the close rapport between Kim and Putin, describing them as “exchanging their pent-up innermost thoughts and opened their minds to more surely develop (North Korea-Russia) relations,” as rode together from the airport to the Kumsusan State Guest House where Putin is staying.

Putin’s trip follows Kim’s landmark visit to Russia last year, where the two leaders were widely seen as opening this new chapter in their relations predicated on Putin’s need for North Korean arms for its ongoing offensive.

Russia has received more than 10,000 shipping containers – the equivalent of 260,000 metric tons of munitions or munitions-related material – from North Korea since September, according to a US statement in February. Russian forces have also launched at least 10 North Korea-made missiles on Ukraine since September, a US official also said in March.

The Russian leader is widely seen as looking to ensure this continued support, which may be especially urgent as delayed American military aid to Ukraine comes online.

Putin also sought to link today’s meeting to Moscow and Pyongyang’s historic ties. The “exploits of previous generations” were a “good basis for the development of relations” between the two nations, he told Kim, according to Russian state media TASS.

A long history

Putin made his last visit to Pyongyang in 2000 for a meeting with Kim’s late father and predecessor Kim Jong Il. That trip, weeks after Putin’s inauguration for his first term as president, made him the first Russian head of state to visit North Korea.

The elder Kim then visited Moscow in 2001, taking a marathon nine-day rail trip across Russia for the meeting, in what was only his second overseas trip after an earlier visit to China.

The two countries in 2000 also inked a new cooperation agreement. Unlike a 1961 document between the Soviet Union and North Korea, that new iteration did not include reference to mutual military defense assistance, but was seen as an important step in reviving a fraught and closely linked relationship.

The two neighbors have deep ties on the Korean Peninsula. Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung rose to power in the late 1940s as part of Soviet efforts to install a communist-controlled government in the north to rival a US-backed government in the south following the defeat of the Japanese imperial army during World War II.

But tightly integrated relations frayed and transformed in the intervening decades, as the Soviet Union collapsed and the new state of Russia established diplomatic relations with Seoul and supported multiple United Nations sanctions on North Korea’s weapons program.

The latest raft of diplomacy comes as shared frustrations with the West have driven the two countries closer – a trend observers say has now been accelerated by the war in Ukraine and has seen North Korea gain a powerful friend in the UN Security Council.

In March, Moscow vetoed a UN resolution to renew independent monitoring of North Korea’s violations of Security Council sanctions – raising concerns about the relationship weakening controls on Kim’s illegal weapons program.

This story has been updated.

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CNN’s Isaac Yee and Jadyn Sham contributed to this report.

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