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Russia's Lavrov arrives in North Korea as cooperation deepens

FILE PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Arab League Chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit meet in Moscow

By Josh Smith and Guy Faulconbridge

SEOUL/MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday for meetings seen as setting the stage for a visit by President Vladimir Putin, who has stepped up cooperation with politically isolated North Korea.

Lavrov's two-day visit comes a month after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a rare trip to Russia, during which he invited Putin to Pyongyang and discussed military cooperation, including over North Korea's satellite program and the war in Ukraine.

Putin's foreign minister, who last visited North Korea in 2018, will hold talks with his North Korean counterpart, according to the Interfax news agency.

Russia's TASS news agency reported that Lavrov may brief the North Koreans on the results of Putin's visit to China, as well as discussing Putin's potential visit.

Calling each other "comrade", Putin and Kim toasted their friendship last month with Russian wine.

Courting Kim allows Putin, who says Moscow is locked in an existential battle with the West over Ukraine, to needle Washington and its Asian allies while potentially securing a deep supply of artillery for the Ukraine war.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim on Tuesday called relations between North Korea and Russia "worrying," after the White House said last week Pyongyang had recently supplied weapons to Russia.

A growing number of reports by the U.S. government and Western researchers have documented with satellite imagery what they say are North Korean weapons shipments to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that the Western allegations were not based on evidence.

"They report about it all the time - they don't provide any evidence," Peskov said, according to TASS. Peskov said Russia would continue to build its relations with North Korea.

On Monday the British Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) released dozens of high-resolution commercial satellite images that it said showed two Russian ships with connections to Russia's military logistics networks making multiple trips to North Korea.

The two ships had moved several hundred containers to and from a port in North Korea since August, the RUSI report said.

Although acknowledging it was impossible to confirm their contents, the report said containers of the same size and colour were later seen being delivered to a recently expanded Russian munitions storage facility near the border with Ukraine.

North Korea is heavily sanctioned over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and U.N. Security Council resolutions - approved at the time with Russia's support - ban cooperation with Pyongyang on military issues as well as in a range of other areas.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Kevin Liffey)