New evidence has emerged that North Korea has become a major missile supplier to Russia during its invasion of Ukraine, prompting growing international concern. According to Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Russia “would have struggled” without North Korea’s assistance as its missile stockpiles dwindle after nearly a year of intense combat.
Satellite images analyzed by Western intelligence agencies appear to show Russian ships loading artillery munitions and other weapons in North Korean ports in violation of United Nations sanctions. The revelations come amid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s planned visit to North Korea this week to reportedly expand economic and military cooperation.
The prospect of Russia potentially acquiring more of Pyongyang’s increasingly capable ballistic missiles presents a serious threat to Ukraine’s defenses. It also reveals the deepening Russia-North Korea axis that could have major implications for regional security.
North Korea Ships Artillery to Russia
On January 20th, Britain sent intelligence to United Nations experts showing Russian ships were suspected of receiving artillery from North Korea by illegally transferring cargos from North Korean vessels in the Sea of Japan.
According to Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov, North Korea is now Russia’s largest munitions supplier as Moscow’s missile stockpiles run low. He stated Russia has obtained “a rather large quantity of missiles and artillery shells” from Pyongyang.
Budanov warned the North Korean threat “could change drastically” given the new Russia cooperation. A unnamed U.S. official similarly cautioned the Pyongyang-Moscow partnership could bring “fairly drastic changes” to the Ukraine battlefield if more advanced North Korean weapons enter the conflict zone.
|North Korean Arms Recently Acquired by Russia
|152mm artillery shells
|122mm multiple rocket launcher missiles
|SA-5 surface-to-air missiles
A new analysis by conflict monitoring organization Conflict Armament Research additionally confirmed Russia’s first documented use of North Korean-supplied missiles in a strike in Ukraine in November. British intelligence assessed the missiles were designed to circumvent air defenses by flying on low, terrain-hugging trajectories that conventional missiles struggle with.
Concerns Over Ballistic Missile Transfers
Perhaps most worrying are indications that North Korea may provide its arsenal of nuclear-capable short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles to replenish Russia’s depleted stockpiles. While less precise, these missiles are harder to intercept and could allow Russia to expand its bombing campaign deeper into Ukrainian territory.
U.S. and Asian officials have noticed Russian cargo vessels originating from North Korean ports under the guise of delivering humanitarian goods. But it is suspected the ships are being used as “ghost ships” to illicitly transport North Korean missiles to Russia disguised as legitimate aid shipments.
The White House warned of “catastrophic consequences” if North Korea sells or helps produce ballistic missiles for use against Ukraine. While North Korea denied the “groundless” allegations, Russia refused to respond to questions regarding any North Korean arms transfers.
Putin Seeks to Solidify Russia-North Korea Ties
The new evidence of under-the-radar North Korean military assistance has emerged just ahead of an unprecedented visit by Vladimir Putin to North Korea this week.
Putin will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang on Thursday in their first summit since 2019. The meeting is aimed at reaffirming bilateral ties and could lead to a slew of new economic and military agreements.
According to U.S. intelligence reports, Russia has already offered North Korea an aid package of fuel, grain, machinery and vehicles in return for more arms supplies. Putin is also expected to promise food security assistance and greater collaboration on infrastructure development projects during his visit.
For North Korea, supplying arms to Russia provides badly needed revenue for its isolated, heavily sanctioned economy while Russia’s continued support allows it to ramp up weapons development unchecked. The deepening partnership heightens the risk of significant missile technology proliferation and further empowers two U.S. adversaries.
Implications for Regional Security
Analysts say Russia’s reliance on North Korea for missiles and other ammunition spotlights the unexpectedly rapid erosion of Russia’s military capabilities and weapons inventories after months of attritive warfare in Ukraine. It has been forced to turn to unlikely partners like Iran and North Korea to sustain its offensive operations.
Concurrently, Pyongyang’s emergence as a black-market munitions distributor will allow it to exponentially grow its nuclear, missile and cyberwarfare programs with new funding channels outside the view of prying Western monitors.
U.S. Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell summed up the heightened fears: “Any effort to proliferate across boundaries is incredibly dangerous and destabilizing and something that we intend to oppose.”
The Russia-North Korea partnership also raises alarms for other regional flashpoints like Taiwan. With Russia preoccupied in Ukraine, analysts say Kim Jong Un may look to leverage his enhanced military capabilities to adopt a more coercive posture regarding South Korea and Japan in pursuit of longstanding aims to push U.S. forces out of the peninsula.
In the near-term, Western governments are likely to levy additional sanctions and maritime interdiction operations to curb ship-to-ship transfers of North Korean munitions heading to Russia.
But comprehensive containment of the Russia-North Korea arms trade will prove challenging. Both nations have plenty of experience evading sanctions and have smuggling networks apt at masking illicit cargo movements.
Looking ahead, the West faces an increasingly complex balancing act attempting to avoid a uncontrolled horizontal arms proliferation regime while still steadfastly supporting Ukraine’s sovereign right to self-defense against Russian aggression.
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