Over the past week, evidence has emerged that North Korea has significantly escalated shipments of artillery shells and other munitions to Russia in support of its invasion of Ukraine. According to military intelligence officials and satellite imagery analyzed by Western governments, dozens of rail cars and multiple ships have transported North Korean armaments to Russia in recent months, violating United Nations sanctions.
North Korean Ships Docked in Russian Port City
On January 22nd, the British government reported to a UN sanctions committee that North Korean cargo vessels conducted multiple port calls between November 2022 and January 2023 in Nakhodka on Russia’s Pacific coast. The UK submitted satellite photos showing North Korean vessels docked at a Russian naval base where military equipment was being loaded onto the ships.
According to the photographic evidence, Russian cargo trucks delivered crates with unknown contents onto North Korean vessels docked at the military base. The trucks displayed markings of Russia’s Eastern Military District.
Hundreds of Rail Cars Shipped Missiles and Ammunition
Western intelligence sources have also tracked extensive transfers of weapons via rail connections across the Russia-North Korea border. Analysts told The Wall Street Journal that North Korea exported more than 800 rail cars worth of rockets, missiles, and ammunition to Russia between September 2022 and January 2023. Each rail car likely contained at least 25-30 tons of armaments.
Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov stated North Korea is currently Russia’s largest arms supplier, eclipsing even China and Iran. He warned that without North Korean assistance, Russia’s battlefield situation would be “catastrophic.”
Table 1. Known North Korean arms transfers to Russia since September 2022
Missiles Fired on Ukraine Likely North Korean
There are also indications Russia has already used North Korean missiles on the battlefield in Ukraine. In early January, Ukrainian forces recovered remnants of a short-range ballistic missile that analysts determined was nearly identical to missiles displayed at North Korea’s military parades in 2020 and 2022.
Given the visual and design similarities, independent weapons experts concluded the crashed missile in Ukraine was very likely built in North Korea. The Soviet-era missile designs owned by Russia do not match the debris recovered by the Ukrainians.
If proven true, the missile usage would confirm Russia has tapped into North Korea’s arsenal to supplement its dwindling domestic stocks. Russian forces have ramped up bombardments across Ukraine over the past two months, launching frequent salvos of missiles and rockets aimed at civilian infrastructure.
North Korean Arms Critical to Russia’s War Effort
Western officials and experts have warned Russia’s newly deepened alliance with North Korea poses serious concerns for the future of the war in Ukraine.
A senior U.S. defense official said the North Korean arms relationship has provided a “lifeline” for the struggling Russian military. With its own weapons production hampered by sanctions and global supply chain disruptions, Russia has become increasingly reliant on imported missiles, rockets, and artillery shells.
U.S. and South Korean officials have also tracked a dramatic increase in Russian tankers shuttling between North Korean ports and the Russian Far East. The tanker traffic suggests a barter system, with Russia potentially exchanging fuel and other sanctioned goods for North Korean armaments.
While North Korea’s aging arsenal lacks the precision technology found in Russian and Western weapons, the vast quantity of artillery and unguided rockets could still boost Russia’s ability to wage war in Ukraine. However, military analysts say many older North Korean missiles may prove unreliable or inaccurate on an actual battlefield.
UN Security Council Response Required
The UK’s report on North Korea’s sanction-violating behavior prompted outrage from Western diplomats and calls for punitive actions. The U.S. Embassy in Georgia said the international community must “take action” in response, warning of dangerous consequences should North Korea continue arming Russia undeterred.
However, any meaningful response from the UN Security Council remains unlikely given Russia’s permanent veto power as a member. Other options on the table include additional independent sanctions and seizures of North Korean weapons exports attempted through other international ports.
China, North Korea’s main political and economic benefactor, has remained notably silent amid the allegations of arms transfers. While not explicitly endorsing North Korea’s actions, experts say Beijing likely calculated it was fruitless to jeopardize relations with Pyongyang given the material support now flowing in Russia’s direction.
Escalatory Spiral Fears if Conflict Widens
Looking ahead, continued North Korean arms deliveries could prolong and intensify the brutal war in Ukraine, now entering its second year.
There are also worries inside South Korea that North Korea may become emboldened by Russia’s overtures, leading to renewed regional tensions. The two countries recently concluded an unprecedented joint naval patrol featuring a Russian guided-missile cruiser and North Korean missile boats operating near the Korean Peninsula.
While still preliminary, there exists concern the Russia-North Korea axis could expand in scope and ultimately alter the dynamics of security crises across the Indo-Pacific. Ongoing monitoring for weapons transfers and other illicit trade between the two heavily sanctioned partners will remain crucial.
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