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Can Russia send weapons to North Korea amid sanctions?

June 26, 2024

A major new defense deal between Pyongyang and Moscow is stoking concern that Russia could ship weapons to North Korea, and share know-how with Kim Jong Un's regime.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Pyongyang
Kim signed a comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin last weekImage: VLADIMIR SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Early Wednesday, North Korea launched a weapon that intelligence agencies believe was an advanced hypersonic missile, although the test ended in failurewhen the missile blew up off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula.

The launch came a day after the 74th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. It is widely considered to have been a defiant show of force by the North, after the US Navy aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt docked at the South Korean port of Busan earlier this week ahead of trilateral naval exercises with South Korea and Japan.

The latest failed missile launch could lead North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to request better technological know-how from his new military ally, Russia, to ensure the next test is a success.

And the potential pipeline of advanced military equipment and knowledge is of deep concern to governments in the region and further afield.

Putin's North Korea visit deepens alliance against US-led global order

Moscow draws closer to Pyongyang

Kim signed a comprehensive strategic cooperation agreementwith Russian President Vladimir Putin when the latter visited the North Korean capital last week.

The agreement includes a commitment for the two countries to come to each other's assistance if either is attacked.

While there was no mention of exchanging weapons, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has drawn Moscow closer to Pyongyang, as Western powers have stepped up sanctions against Russia.

The North has allegedly provided millions of artillery shells and short-range missiles to Putin's hard-pressed troops in Ukraine.  In return, it has received Russian fuel in amounts beyond limits specified in UN sanctions, food supplies and technology for nuclear, missile and space programs.

Pyongyang has denied allegations of supplying weapons to Russia.

Technology for artillery

"Russia needs artillery ammunition and ballistic missiles from North Korea. North Korea is exploiting the situation and very likely asking for technology transfer for missiles, its nuclear program and vehicles," said Nico Lange, a security expert at the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

"Kim is a tough negotiator, he even forced Putin to upgrade him with the first high-level visit after 24 years," Lange told DW. "Russia will pay a high price for the low-quality artillery ammunition and ballistic missiles it gets from North Korea. Putin has to give in because of the precarious situation he maneuvered himself into in Ukraine."

Cold war continues to rage between North and South Korea

An analysis of potential Russian exports, conducted by the Washington-based Stimson Center and published on its 38 North website, suggested Kim has a long shopping list of equipment that he would like to obtain in order to replace obsolescent hardware.

Pyongyang "is seeking to procure fighter jets, armored vehicles and surface-to-air missiles from Russia," the report said, quoting US government officials. In a message on Telegram, Russian State Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov highlighted plans to expand Russia-North Korea cooperation in space.

This would build on a pledge by Putin to assist the North's satellite program, made when Kim visited the Vostochny space center in September.

Little impediment to weapons transfers?

Russia has in the past sold submarines to North Korea, and Pyongyang earlier this year unveiled what it said was the first in a series of vessels capable of launching ballistic missiles from beneath the surface. The US is concerned that a submarine capable of launching a missile with a nuclear warhead is on Kim's wish list.  

Analysts say that despite a series of UN Security Council resolutions banning weapons transactions with North Korea — many of which Moscow has previously signed — there will be little impediment to such exchanges.

Why North Korea is more dangerous than ever

"North Korea and Russia share a very short border in the very far northeast of the peninsula and there is a rail bridge over the Tumen River that has already been used for trains carrying shells to cross into Russia," said Yakov Zinberg, a Russia-born professor of international relations at Tokyo's Kokushikan University.

"We also know that ships are sailing from Russian Far East ports to North Korean ports without even having to leave each other's territorial waters," he said.

Images taken by US company Planet Labs PBC and published by Japan's Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper on June 7 show what are believed to be four North Korean vessels docked at the Russian port of Vostochny. The ships had previously disappeared after their Automatic Identification System signals were turned off to conceal their locations.

"Russia and North Korea are now basically ignoring the sanctions," Zinberg told DW. "They will not say that openly and they will continue to deny they are providing weapons or fuel to each other, but they are still making it clear that they do not care what the international community thinks."

Russia-North Korea alliance significantly changes 'balance of power'

The transfer of weapons that Kim previously could only have dreamed of is likely to upset the delicate military balance in Northeast Asia, said Lange. "Russia is making North Korea more dangerous and trades dangerous technologies to a bad actor," he said.

Is the Indo-Pacific entering new era of security alliances?

Zinberg echoed this view, saying it "will change the balance of power considerably."

"This military alliance brings together Russian military power with Kim's ambitions in the region, so it is inevitable that the security picture will have to change," he said. "South Korea, Japan and the US will have to take countermeasures to a new alignment that is potentially very powerful."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea