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Ukraine war: two good reasons the world should worry about Russia’s arms purchases from North Korea

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu stands on balcony next to North Korean lader Kim Jng-un as they both salute a military parade
Brothers in arms: Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a military parade in Pyongyang in July. EPA-EFE/KCNA

US national security council official John Kirby noted on August 30 that arms transfer negotiations between North Korea and Russia are “actively advancing” as the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, seeks to feed his war machine.

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Under an array of western-led sanctions, Russia and its military contractor, the Wagner Group, have already allegedly turned to Pyongyang for artillery shells and what has been reported as “infantry rockets and missiles” in the past year.

While these sales and a flourishing business relationship with North Korea may have an important impact on the battlefields of Ukraine, my research on North Korea’s arms trading and procurement networks suggests that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is likely to seek technology from Russia in exchange. This would be a huge boost to the DPRK’s weapons programmes and, at the same time, greatly to the detriment of the UN sanctions regime that seeks to limit those programmes.

Flourishing military relationship

Recent developments have suggested a burgeoning arms trading relationship, despite denials from North Korea and the recently deceased Wagner Group owner, Yevgeny Prighozin.

In September 2022, the US suggested that the DPRK was supplying Russia with artillery shells in “significant” numbers. And in January 2023 – two months after North Korea allegedly supplied the Wagner Group with the battlefield rockets and missiles – Kirby shared satellite imagery of a train at the DPRK-Russian border carrying the deadly cargo.

In March, Ashot Mkrtychev, a Slovakian national, was sanctioned by the US Treasury department for working with DPRK officials to procure “two dozen kinds of weapons and munitions for Russia”. This suggests that the two countries have several avenues of contact.

In July, the US sanctioned North Korean arms dealer Rim Yong Hyok for facilitating unspecified arms transfers to the Wagner Group. A 2019 UN report lists an individual with the same name having been the deputy representative of the North Korean arms trading company Komid in Syria.

This is a theatre in which the Wagner Group has operated extensively, suggesting this may be where at least one arms trading connection was forged.

Brothers in arms

It was, however, the visit of Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, to Pyongyang that was the most significant sign of a flourishing relationship. Shoigu – in town to mark the 70th anniversary of the Korean war armistice – was front and centre of the celebrations, attending a military parade and other pageantry, overshadowing the Chinese delegation.

Most significantly, Shoigu was guided around an arms exhibition by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. The exhibition featured intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range hypersonic missiles and newly unveiled advanced drones, among a range of other weapons systems.

North Korean arms exports have grown steadily along with its defence industrial base since the 1970s. Many transfers were made to cold war ideological allies, but the country also increasingly sold weapons for hard currency and barter to soothe its economic woes. Iran was one of North Korea’s biggest customers in the 1980s during its war with Iraq.

Since 2006, the country has been under an increasingly complex regime of UN sanctions imposed to counter the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes. The UN arms embargos have prohibited the import of major weapons systems from North Korea from 2006, and the import of all arms from North Korea from 2009.

Russia – a UN security council permanent member with veto power – actively endorsed the creation of the DPRK sanctions regime for more than a decade through its votes for sanctions resolutions. The most recent package of sanctions was passed in 2017.

But the country’s implementation of the sanctions regime – alongside fellow permanent security council member China – has been far from assertive. There is little evidence of Russian government action against North Korea’s procurement networks in Russian territory.

Indeed, both countries have increasingly dragged their feet over further sanctions resolutions.

Pyongyang hungry for tech

Clearly, Russia stands to benefit on the battlefield in Ukraine. But its purchases will undermine the North Korea sanctions regime and help to generate revenue for the Kim regime. It could also spur a broader renaissance for North Korea’s arms export enterprise.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches the launch of a missile from a balcony, 2015.
Despite western sanctions, North Korea has pressed ahead with its nuclear missile development programme under the leadership of Kim Jong-un. EPA/KCNA

North Korea desperately wants commodities such as food, oil, fertiliser and other goods. The sanctioned Slovakian individual mentioned above, for example, worked with DPRK officials to procure weapons for Russia “in exchange for materials ranging from commercial aircraft, raw materials and commodities to be sent to the DPRK”.

But more worrying than sanctioned commodities, North Korea has long relied on arms sales to fund its weapons development – including its nuclear and long-range missile programmes.

This has been termed “proliferation financing”. Great efforts have been made by civil society to encourage governments and the private sector around the world to implement UN sanctions.

Russia has a vast military, nuclear and missile industrial complex, which – although much of it is struggling because of sanctions – could provide Pyongyang with much-needed technological fruits. While evidence of state-sanctioned transfers of WMD technology by Russia is scant, changing circumstances could potentially affect this.

Russia has shown itself to be a bountiful market for North Korean procurement. A 2022 UN report highlighted the role of a North Korean diplomat in Moscow in procuring a range of technologies for ballistic missiles, and even attempting to procure 3,000kg of steel for North Korea’s submarine programme, between 2016 and 2021.

The irony of Russia’s new interest in North Korean weaponry is that – historically alongside China – Moscow was North Korea’s top arms supplier before the sanctions era. It also more broadly bankrolled the North Korean regime through aid before the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war.

If Moscow does move towards becoming a regular customer for embargoed North Korean arms, it will help Putin sustain his illegal war on Ukraine. But the potential technological payoff for Pyongyang could pose longer-term hazards for the world and must also be considered.

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