Walking past huge intercontinental ballistic missiles and previously unseen military drones, Kim Jong Un gave Russia's defence minister a tour of North Korea's newest and most advanced weaponry Thursday, state media reported.
After Washington earlier this year accused Pyongyang of supplying Moscow with weapons for its war in Ukraine, photographs in state media showed Kim walking Moscow's Sergei Shoigu through a vast defence exhibition showcasing the North's nuclear missiles and what Seoul-based specialist site NK News said were new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Kim and Shoigu visited the "Weapons and Equipment Exhibition 2023", the official Korean Central News Agency said, showing photos that featured North Korea's largest intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Hwasong-17, and the Hwasong-18 solid-fuel ICBM.
Russia, a historic ally of North Korea, is one of a handful of nations with which Pyongyang maintains friendly relations. Kim and Shoigu had earlier discussed "matters of mutual concern in the field of national defence and security and on the regional and international security environment," KCNA said.
The North Korean leader has been steadfast in his support for Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, including, Washington says, supplying rockets and missiles -- a charge Pyongyang has angrily denied.
During the visit, Kim told Shoigu "about the weapons and equipment which were invented and produced" under North Korea's national defence plan and "repeatedly expressed belief that the Russian army and people would achieve big successes", KCNA added.
Shoigu's visit is noteworthy given that Russian defence ministers have not regularly visited Pyongyang since before the collapse of the USSR, experts told AFP.
But despite the high-profile coverage of Shoigu's visit, North Korea is likely to be "very careful" about providing Moscow with weapons for its war in Ukraine, Park Won-gon, professor at Ewha University, told AFP.
"If it is confirmed publicly, European countries would also turn adversarial," Park said, adding that North Korea would prefer not to face additional sanctions.
"So it will be careful, but it's possible that Russia will seek more help in secret."
- First foreigners -
Satellite imagery indicates North Korea has been preparing for a large-scale military parade for the Thursday anniversary.
The inclusion of foreign guests at this year's celebrations is a post-pandemic first and hints at new flexibility towards enforcing border controls.
The Russian and Chinese delegations are Pyongyang's first known foreign visitors since its 2020 pandemic closure.
North Korea has been under a rigid, self-imposed blockade since early 2020 to protect itself from Covid-19, preventing even its own nationals from entering the country.
Beijing is North Korea's most important ally and economic benefactor, their relationship forged in the bloodshed of the Korean War in the 1950s.
Kim Jong Un also met a Chinese delegation led by politburo member Li Hongzhong and told him "the Korean people will never forget the fact that the brave soldiers of the Chinese People's Volunteers shed blood to bring about the war victory," KCNA said.
"The meetings show that Kim is more interested in political theater than he is concerned about Covid," Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told AFP.
Park Won-gon, another professor at Ewha University, said it was unlikely the visits would lead to a reopening of North Korea's borders.
"Covid-19 is a very serious challenge for North Korea and they are not ready to open their borders yet," he said, noting the country's "broken" medical system and that its people had not been vaccinated.
North Korea only resumed some trade with China last year and allowed new Beijing envoy Wang Yajun to take up his position this year. He is the first known senior diplomat to cross into North Korea since the border closure in January 2020.
Russia's ambassador to Pyongyang, Alexander Matsegora, is known to have remained in the North Korean capital throughout the pandemic, even as staff numbers at his embassy dwindled and other foreign missions closed their doors.