North Korea may be sending arms

Washington Post

North Korea may be sending arms to Russia for Ukraine war, images suggest
By Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Joyce Sohyun Lee
Updated October 16, 2023 at 5:56 a.m. EDT|Published October 16, 2023 at 5:30 a.m. EDT

TOKYO — Russian ships linked to military transport networks have collected cargo from North Korea and delivered it to an apparent Russian military port on multiple occasions over the past two months, according to new satellite images providing the clearest evidence yet that Pyongyang may be helping Moscow’s war effort.

The two ships had no record of running this route between North Korea and Russia until August, when high-level meetings between North Korean and Russian officials began, paving the way for Kim Jong Un to meet Vladimir Putin last month.

U.S. intelligence assessments at the time suggested that Russia was looking to get North Korean weaponry to replenish its dwindling supplies for the war in Ukraine. White House officials said Friday this now appears to be happening and named one Russian vessel, alleging that North Korea has transported as many as 1,000 containers with “equipment and munitions” from North Korea to Russia “in recent weeks.”

But new satellite images, analyzed by the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and provided first to The Washington Post, suggest this operation is more regular, extensive and ongoing than the White House revealed.

Not one but two ships have been plying the route between the northeastern North Korean port of Rajin and a secure port facility in Dunai, in Russia’s Far East, making at least five round trips beginning mid-August through Saturday, according to the RUSI analysis.

Although it is impossible to tell what is being transported, the new images show ships linked to the Russian military logistics network, which strongly suggests these commercial vessels are carrying military equipment, RUSI analysts and U.S. officials say.

“This will have a very serious effect on the trajectory of the war [in Ukraine],” said Jack Watling, senior research fellow for land warfare at RUSI. “North Korea has the ability to manufacture a lot of ammunition, and it has significant stockpiles.” (Royal United Services Institute)

North Korea makes two of the types of munitions that Russia has used heavily in the war — Soviet-era 122mm Grad rockets and 122mm howitzer artillery rounds — and desperately needs more of as its wages its grinding war of attrition against Ukraine.

Around the time the shipments began, munition pits were rapidly expanded at an ammunition depot near the Ukrainian border, which U.S. officials identified as the ultimate destination for the shipments.

U.S. officials and experts have said North Korea has Soviet-designed munitions and other conventional weapons, including artillery platforms and rocket launchers, that the Russians are seeking.

The new satellite images show that two Russian-flagged cargo ships, the Angara and the Maria, began traveling between Rajin and Dunai in mid-August.

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They have made at least five trips since, moving hundreds of containers, according to the images. The latest delivery from North Korea to Russia took place on Saturday, when the Maria was spotted in Dunai offloading cargo, according to RUSI’s analysis.

Shortly before they began operating along this route, the two vessels went dark, turning off the signal of their automatic identification system, according to data from ship-tracking site Marine Traffic. This allows the Maria and Angara to hide their position as they transit between ports.

Around the same time, there was a rapid expansion of munition pits at an ammunition depot near Tikhoretsk, about 180 miles from the Ukrainian border, images show.

These pits have been filled with munition boxes in recent weeks as rail cars arrived, offloading containers that were lined next to the pits. The color and size of those containers matched the shipments arriving at Dunai from Rajin, according to RUSI (Royal United Services Institute and Planet Labs).

U.S. officials alleged last Friday that these munition boxes originated from North Korea, and the characteristics of the ships appear to support U.S. allegations that North Korea has delivered weapons to Russia for the war using this route.

The White House last week released satellite images of what it said were 300 shipping containers delivered by the cargo vessel from Rajin to Dunai by sea, and then transported by rail to an ammunition depot near Tikhoretsk. This transfer was made between Sept. 7 and Oct. 1, U.S. officials said.

“This expanding military partnership between the DPRK and Russia, including any technology transfers from Russia to the DPRK, undermines regional stability and the global nonproliferation regime,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Since the Korean War ended in a cease-fire in 1953, the two Koreas have been developing huge amounts of conventional weapons in case war breaks out again on the peninsula.

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North Korea is believed to have a large stockpile of artillery shells and rockets that would be compatible with Soviet and Russian weapons systems used against Ukraine. It also has production capacity to manufacture new weapons that would help Russia maintain its high ammunition burn rate as the Kremlin seeks to scale up domestic production.

This is widely thought to have been the catalyst for Kim’s trip to far-eastern Russia for a rare in-person summit with Putin last month, his first trip abroad since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Kim called his country’s relations with Russia his top priority and pledged full support for Putin and his government amid their war in Ukraine.

Analysts say in return for supporting the Kremlin, North Korea may be interested in advanced technologies from Russia for its weapons and nuclear program. During his trip, Kim toured a Russian fighter jet factory that is under Western sanctions, as well as a key Russian spaceport.

Neither the Russian Embassy in the United States nor the North Korean mission to the United Nations responded to a request for comment sent Sunday.

Analysis by RUSI found that the operation may have started at the end of August and appears to have involved a second vessel, Maria, which followed a similar path as the Angara, the ship identified by U.S. officials.

The images show the two vessels making multiple trips between Dunai and Rajin, picking up and delivering cargo at each location. At the Rajin port, the two ships typically load and unload containers at different docks. In Dunai, the ships have unloaded their cargo while next to a military vessel.

Kirby said Russia may have responded in kind by shipping weapons of its own to North Korea. He did not specify the types of arms that the United States believed were shipped.

Russia’s use of civilian ships to covertly carry out military activities has been well documented. Military analysts recently spotted signs that Russian merchant vessels are probably transporting suspected military equipment from Syria to Russia.

The Angara is owned by M Leasing, which has been sanctioned by the United States, the United Kingdom and Ukraine for “transportation of weapons and military equipment in the interests of the Russian government.” It is managed by Marine Trans Shipping, another maritime shipping company sanctioned for transporting weapons for the Russian government.

Registration documents for the Maria show a company called JSC Sovfracht is associated with the vessel, RUSI found. In 2019, the United States named Sovfracht as a company behind a sanctions evasion conspiracy to aid Russian forces operating in Syria in support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Joyce Sohyun Lee reported from Washington.