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North Korea's Kim stresses 'strategic importance' of Russia ties ahead of Putin summit

By Hyunsu Yim and Soo-hyang Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said his visit to Russia shows the "strategic importance" of the two countries' ties, state news agency KCNA reported on Wednesday ahead of an expected summit with President Vladimir Putin.

The meeting, which could be as early as Wednesday, is being watched apprehensively by Washington and allies, who suspect the two leaders will discuss military cooperation and could agree on a deal to trade arms and defence technology.

Hours ahead of the anticipated summit, North Korea launched at least two ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast, South Korea's military and Japan's coast guard said. Details on the type of missiles were not yet released.

The Japanese government said a second missile was launched and both fell outside the country's exclusive economic zone.

Kim arrived in Russia by private train on Tuesday in the Russian Far East accompanied by top defence industry and military aides, and was welcomed by an honour guard and senior Russian and regional officials, KCNA said.

"Kim Jong Un said that his visit to the Russian Federation ... is a clear manifestation of the stand of the WPK and the government of the DPRK prioritising the strategic importance of DPRK-Russia relations," the KCNA report said.

The DPRK stands for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, while the WPK is the Workers' Party of Korea, the country's ruling party.

U.S. officials have said arms talks between Russia and North Korea were actively advancing, and Washington and allies have expressed concern that Kim and Putin would discuss providing Russia with weapons for the war in Ukraine.

Pyongyang and Moscow have denied shipments of ammunition to Russia or any future plans by the North to supply arms.

Images released by KCNA showed Kim arriving at the train station in the border town of Khasan on Tuesday morning, stepping off the train for the welcome ceremony and moving indoors for discussions with Russian officials.

He met with Russian Natural Resources Minister Alexander Kozlov and far eastern Primorsky region governor Oleg Kozhemyako before leaving "for his destination", KCNA said. It made no mention of a summit with Putin or where Kim was headed.

Japan's Kyodo news said Putin and Kim are expected to meet on Wednesday afternoon at Russia's Vostochny cosmodrome, a space centre more than 1,700 km (1,056 miles) north of Khasan, citing an unnamed Russian official.

On Tuesday, Putin said at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok that he was planning to go to the Vostochny space centre, without saying whether he planned to meet Kim there.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Kim's visit will be a "fully fledged" one and the two sides will conduct "negotiations". Humanitarian aid to North Korea and U.N. Security Council resolutions imposed on Pyongyang may also be discussed, Russian officials have said.

Russia's foreign ministry said the upcoming talks between Putin and Kim are important against the backdrop of geopolitical changes in the world.

"Bilateral contacts are very important. And the situation on the Korean Peninsula is, of course, of utmost importance for security and stability in the region," state news agency RIA quoted ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying.

The United States and South Korea have warned any arms trade with the North is violation of Security Council resolutions that Moscow voted to approve.

The trip marks Kim's first visit to Russia in nearly four years and his first foreign visit after the worldwide public health crisis, according to KCNA, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic.

His visit seeks to put DPRK-Russia relations of friendship and cooperation on a "fresh higher level," the report said.

(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim, Ju-min Park and Soo-hyang Choi in Seoul, Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo, Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by Jack Kim and Gerry Doyle)