North Korea is secretly supplying Russia with artillery, the US says
Kirby would not reveal how the North Koreans might deliver artillery shells or which countries are believed to be transit points, saying only, “We have a sense of where they’re going” and that the United States “will continue to look at what our options are.”
Allegations about North Korea are on top of evidence that Russia also relied on Iran – and especially Iranian-made drones — to supplement its war effort in Ukraine. That Moscow has turned to both pariah states — which have spent years under punishing sanctions aimed at curbing their nuclear weapons development — is “a sign of the lack and need of Russian articles,” Kirby said.
He credited the “effectiveness of international sanctions” for constraining Russia’s defense industrial base to the point that Russian President Vladimir Putin had to seek help from North Korea — an option the Biden administration first suggested Putin had sought weeks ago.
“Back in September we had indications that Russia was willing to buy,” Kirby he said. “Now we have indications that Russia has bought — and they’re on the move.”
But there are practical limits to getting those weapons to Russia – especially if Moscow wants them quickly.
“Artillery is very, very heavy. So it will take weeks to ship,” said Bruce W. Bennett, a defense researcher at the Rand Corp. and an expert on Northeast Asia and the Middle East. Far more likely, he said, North Korea would send at least some of the shells through China, where trains could carry the cargo through Central Asia and Iran — making it nearly impossible for the United States and its allies to stop the weapons before they reach their destination.
It’s also possible, Bennett said, that North Korea is using multiple routes to keep the West guessing. Pyongyang would have to use sea lanes to get artillery to North Africa, potentially creating more opportunities for the West to seize weapons, but also maintaining a steady supply to the Russians, he noted, adding: “Maybe some of the ammunition travels by train and some travels by ship because Russia thinks it will be in this war for a long period of time.”
While the White House has not specified which countries serve as transit points, there are several likely candidates, given Russia’s influence in the region.
Russia has close ties to Syria, where it has been President Bashar al-Assad’s main military backer in an 11-year civil war that has become a conflict with rebel and extremist groups largely cornered in the country’s northwest. Russia has control, according to a bilateral agreement, over the naval base in Tartus, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the Hmeimim air base. Moscow has improved both facilities in recent years.
Assad also maintains relations with North Korea, which has been accused of providing favors the Syrian army with ballistic missiles and chemical weapons components in defiance of UN sanctions. In 2019, the two countries signed an agreement on economic cooperation.
In North Africa, mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group are reportedly present in bases and ports controlled by rebel warlord Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army. Researchers say the group is present in more than a dozen nations on the continent.
North Korea has a network of military flagships in Africa, which experts say the choice of those middle countries is also advantageous.
“The North Koreans have established routes there that they can maneuver,” said Ken Gause, a North Korea expert at the CNA think tank, noting that “the United States has a lot of surveillance over North Korea” that reduces direct routes through Siberia. attractive.
Earlier this fall, North Korea vehemently denied accusations that it could supply weapons to Russia. Experts say it’s a sign that the country either owes Moscow – or has something to gain by doing Russia this favor now.
North Korea’s main preoccupation is its position on the Korean Peninsula, where its long-running conflict with South Korea became particularly heated on Wednesday. Amid joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States, the North carried out a missile launch, with one missile falling near South Korean waters, prompting Seoul to return fire.
North Korea has also sought to develop its own tactical nuclear arsenal – a weapon that Russia has more than any other country in the world. “My guess is that North Korea is doing this to get Russia to give them the help they previously refused,” Bennett said. “When you lead a country that is as rogue as Kim Jong Un in North Korea, you have to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way.”
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