US and Ukraine Accuse Russia of Using North Korean Supplied Missiles in Deadly Attacks
According to senior U.S. officials and statements from Ukrainian officials, Russia has acquired and recently launched ballistic missiles supplied by North Korea into Ukraine. The officials say these latest attacks signify increasing cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang as Russia’s nine-month invasion falters amid heavy losses and depleted weapons stockpiles.
On Thursday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby cited declassified U.S. intelligence and said Russian trains have transported missiles and personnel from Russia into North Korea in November, and then returned carrying components needed for the assembly of short-range ballistic missiles. He said U.S. officials “do believe that Russia could purchase” additional North Korean munitions. Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials also confirmed that Russia used missiles purchased from North Korea in recent strikes. The governor of the Kharkiv region, Oleh Syniehubov, said Wednesday’s strikes were carried out with Soviet-era missiles “not used by the armed forces of the Russian Federation.” The Ukrainian Air Force said that while it could not independently verify the type of missiles, the damage in strikes Thursday in the Dnipro region was consistent with Russia’s use of older Soviet weapons.
These actions would comprise “gross violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” said Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Thursday. Kirill Tymochko, an officer with Ukraine’s national police, described the growing collaboration between Russia and North Korea a “real hellish union of two authoritarian states.”
So far Russia has declined to comment on reports of missile imports from North Korea.
In 2022 alone, Russia launched over 210 missiles against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and energy facilities, leading to power shortages amid freezing winter temperatures. Ukrainian officials warn that with Russian missile supplies dwindling after heavy use in the war, the imports of powerful new weapons from North Korea could portend a dangerous escalation in attacks.
Weapons Involved May Include Longer Range Ballistic Missiles
According to White House and Pentagon officials, the weapons supplied by North Korea could expand Russia’s capabilities in Ukraine. So far in the conflict Russia has mainly used short range ballistic missiles such as Iskander-M, with a range up to 300 miles. The weapons received from North Korea likely include a type of short range ballistic missile called KN-23, which are modifications of old Soviet missiles, according to reports. These KN-23 missiles are thought to have a maximum range of around 600 kilometers (660km). The missiles can carry conventional, chemical, biological or nuclear warheads and are capable of hitting targets in all of Ukraine from western Russia or Belarus.
There are also worrying indications that North Korea may be providing Russia with longer range ballistic missiles. Some reports have mentioned the possible involvement of North Korea’s Hwasong-12 IRBM missiles. These missiles have an estimated range of up to 4,500 km (2,800 mi), potentially allowing Russia to strike deeper into Ukrainian territory from within its own borders. While not confirmed, such a move would mark a major escalation. At a Pentagon briefing on Friday, press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the U.S. had no evidence Russia had received longer-range North Korean missiles but was monitoring the situation.
According to an earlier report by The Washington Post, U.S. officials believe ongoing Russian shortage of technology supplies needed for their munitions industry may be driving increased reliance on rogue states like North Korea. Reports indicate Russia previously purchased drones and ammunition from Iran and is currently negotiating a deal for Iran to supply Russia with more missiles. Combined with the North Korean missile deliveries, this suggests Russia is scrambling to outsourcing weapons to sustain its now faltering invasion of Ukraine.
North Korea Stands to Gain Military and Economic Benefits
Analysts say North Korea likely views missile sales to replenish Russian stockpiles as beneficial for several key reasons. The secretive regime of Kim Jong Un sees Russia as an important political backer and arms customer. Arms deals allow North Korea to advance its banned weapons programs and bring in revenue to prop up its collapsed economy, which is reeling under international sanctions over its nuclear program.
“It shows the growing closeness in Russian-North Korean relations since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” said Go Myong-Hyun, senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “As Russia’s international isolation grows, it will have to rely more on countries like North Korea for sanctions busting.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to demonstrate Russia’s might and ability to assist Moscow despite Ukraine battlefield setbacks and punishing Western sanctions. North Korea also sees the opportunity to test its missiles in real-world combat for the first time. According to reports, the missiles North Korea supplied to Russia were promptly used to target Ukrainian supply bases. The deadly attacks allowed Pyongyang to gauge the effectiveness of weapons it hopes to sell around the world.
Meanwhile, the US has promised North Korea an unspecified “strong response” while Britain called on North Korea to immediately cease supplying missiles to Russia. However, it remains unclear what additional measures can be taken given North Korea’s advanced nuclear arsenal and deep connections to Russia and China. The UK’s Transport Secretary Mark Harper said that while Kim Jong Un wants acceptance on the global stage, “This is not the way to achieve it.”
Cooperation Marks Attempt to Balance Against US, May Bring Closer Ties
The sharing of ballistic missiles to aid Russia’s faltering war efforts points to a tightening alignment between Moscow and Pyongyang meant to counter US global dominance. Russia and North Korea were aligned during the decades of the Cold War and have resumed cooperation in recent years. The latest missile exchange suggests an emboldened axis of two nuclear-armed adversaries of the United States.
North Korea was in lock step with Russia’s disinformation campaign against Ukraine ahead of the invasion. More recently, North Korea became one of the only states other than Russia and Syria to recognize the independence of the pro-Russian breakaway zones of Luhansk and Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. According to North Korean state media, North Korean foreign minister Choe Son-hui sent a congratulatory message hailing the Russian-backed separatist victories as a “great victory to be inscribed in history.”
Experts say Kim also likely aims to strengthen personal ties to Putin in hopes of securing Russian backing and sanctions relief from the brutal international sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear program. Since 2019, Kim Jong Un has met with Putin three times, including soon after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The two autocrats’ commitment to opposing Western-led international pressure has aligned their personal worldviews and national interests. This symbiotic relationship is now playing out on the battlefields of Ukraine, as Russia taps North Korea’s arsenal to continue its assault.
“North Korea has wanted Russia to succeed in Ukraine, viewing it as an important partner,” said Professor Ramon Pacheco Pardo at the Department of European and International Studies. He continued, “if Russia needs North Korean weapons to continue its war efforts, Pyongyang will be willing to provide them.”
|Russian trains transported North Korean ballistic missiles and personnel across Russian border
|Russia launched North Korean KN-23 missiles at Ukrainian supply bases
|January 4, 2023
|U.S. reveals intelligence confirming use of North Korean missiles
|January 5, 2023
|Ukraine says recent Russian missile strikes consistent with Soviet-era missiles from North Korea
Further Missile Supply Poses Global Security Threat, Response Unclear
The U.S. and allies largely see North Korea’s growing support for Russia’s war in Ukraine as posing wider threats to the global world order. Linda Thomas-Greenfield called it “a grave escalation” that undermines international efforts to curb dangerous weapons programs pursued by “irresponsible states.” There are also worries the Ukrainian battlefield provides an unsettling testing ground for North Korean missiles and technology that Pyongyang has been banned from developing under international law.
At the UN Security Council meeting, Thomas-Greenfield said “Any country that provides material support to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will face severe costs as a result of their complicit actions.” However, the scope of additional sanctions or penalties that can be taken against North Korea remains unclear. With veto power on the Security Council, Russia will likely shield North Korea from facing robust censure from the United Nations. Independent actions taken by the U.S, South Korea, Japan or European states also have limited impacts given North Korea’s extensive illicit sanctions-evading smuggling networks to Russia and China.
Nonetheless, continued missile support from North Korea does risk strengthening Russia’s military assault at a pivotal stage of the war. With the outcome hanging in the balance, Pyongyang’s injection of powerful new munitions fuels the Kremlin war machine. In turn, Russia shields North Korea from diplomatic and economic consequences as it continues expanding its nuclear forces. Tyler Rogoway, editor of The War Zone, called the dynamic “troubling,” adding that “the relationship between those two countries will continue to pose a challenge to the national security of South Korea, the United States and its allies for the foreseeable future.”
As Russia turns to authoritarian allies for lifelines, the Ukraine conflict risks enhancing the capability of North Korea’s banned weapons programs. Undeterred by Western pressure, Kim Jong Un seems intent on backing Putin no matter the global security implications. Only time will tell whether North Korean missiles, crewed by Russian soldiers, alter the course of the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the growing Russia-North Korea alliance marked by illicit weapons trade continues eroding the U.S.-led international order.
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