North Korea appears to have begun secretly shipping large amounts of munitions to Russia, according to a new report, using ships and trains to move the weaponry and bolster Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
The report, published on October 16 by the London-based Royal United Services Institute, is based on high-quality satellite imagery surveying ports and train shipments. It adds further evidence to accusations made by the United States and other Western countries that Pyongyang has been helping Russia rebuild its weapons stocks.
More than 18 months into its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has already ramped up its military industrial infrastructure, retooling factories and supply lines to bolster production of weapons, ammunition, and other equipment for the war effort in Ukraine.
But Russian forces are believed to have struggled to keep up with the furious rate of fire of some important weaponry, such as artillery shells. This summer, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to North Korea in what Western officials said was likely a negotiation to acquire armaments from Pyongyang.
Weeks later, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a rare trip abroad, traveling by train to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin and to tour Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome, where satellites and other Russian rocketry are launched.
According to the London institute, known as RUSI, dozens of satellite images taken in recent months appear to show two Russian-flagged cargo ships moving between Rajin, a port on North Korea’s eastern coast and an obscure port in Russia’s Primorye region known as Dunai.
According to RUSI’s account, the ships transported “hundreds of containers” that, the institute said, likely contained North Korean armaments. One of the cargo ships is alleged to have ties to the Russian Defense Ministry, and it, along with a Russian maritime leasing company, were sanctioned by the United States last year.
RUSI said the images also show dozens of shipping containers of the same color and same size arriving weeks later in Tikhoretsk, in Russia’s Krasnodar region, nearly 10,000 kilometers to the west of Primorye. An ammunition depot at Tikhoretsk has been expanded noticeably since August, according to the imagery.
“North Korea’s supplying of significant quantities of munitions to Moscow will have profound consequences for the war in Ukraine,” the report’s authors wrote.
“For the Russians, a major North Korean supply line will alleviate shortages of munitions,” they said. “Ukraine and its supporters will also have to contend with this new reality, potentially escalating their support by providing additional quantities of weapons and munitions to Ukraine's defenders.”
Last month, White House national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said that U.S. intelligence had been tracking the possibility of North Korea supplying Russia with weapons “for quite some time.”
“And the reason why…there is such an intense effort on the part of Moscow to generate this kind of support from North Korea is that we have continued to squeeze…Russia’s defense industrial base, and they are now going about looking to whatever source they can find for things like artillery ammunition,” Sullivan said in September.
Other researchers have also documented evidence pointing to increased rail traffic between North Korea and Russia following Kim’s visit to Russia.
“The level of rail traffic is far greater than what [has been] observed at the facility during the past five years, even compared to pre-Covid-19 levels,” the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report released earlier this month.
“Given that Kim and Putin discussed some military exchanges and cooperation at their recent summit, the dramatic increase in rail traffic likely indicates North Korea’s supply of arms and munitions to Russia.”