The North Korean government is covertly funneling artillery shells to aid Russia in its war in Ukraine using countries in the Middle East and North Africa to mask the weapons’ movement, although it was not yet clear whether those shipments were received, the White House said Wednesday.
Kirby would not disclose how the North Koreans might be shipping the artillery shells or which countries are thought to be transfer points, saying only, “We do have a sense of where they’re going” and that the United States would “continue to look at what our options are.”
The allegations about North Korea come on top of evidence that Russia also has leaned on Iran — and specifically 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 squelching their nuclear weapons development — is “a sign of Russia’s own article shortages and needs,” Kirby said.
He credited “the efficacy of international sanctions” for hobbling Russia’s defense industrial base to the point where Russian President Vladimir Putin had to seek help from North Korea — an option the Biden administration first suggested Putin was pursuing several weeks ago.
“Back in September, we had indications that Russia was willing to buy,” Kirby said. “Now we have indications that Russia has purchased — and they’re on the move.”
But there are practical limitations to getting Russia those weapons — especially if Moscow wants them swiftly.
“Artillery is very, very heavy. So sending it by ship is going to take weeks,” said Bruce W. Bennett, a defense researcher with the Rand Corp. and an expert on both Northeast Asia and the Middle East. It is far likelier, he said, that North Korea would send at least some the shells through China, where trains could carry the load through Central Asia and to Iran — making it nearly impossible for the United States and its allies to interdict the weapons before they reach their destination.
It is also possible, Bennett said, that North Korea is using multiple routes to keep the West guessing. Pyongyang would have to employ sea routes to get the artillery to North Africa, creating potentially more opportunities for the West to seize the weapons, but also keeping the Russians steadily supplied, he noted, adding, “It may well be that part of the ammunition is traveling on a train and part of it is traveling on a ship because Russia thinks it’s going to be at this war for a protracted period of time.”
Though the White House did not specify which countries were serving as transfer points, there are a handful of likely candidates, given where Russia wields influence in the region.
Russia has close relations with Syria, where it has been President Bashar al-Assad’s primary military patron in an 11-year civil war that has become a standoff with rebel and extremist groups largely backed into a corner in the northwestern part of the country. Russia has control, under a bilateral agreement, of the naval base at Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast, as well as Hmeimim air base. Moscow has upgraded both facilities in recent years.
Assad also maintains relations with North Korea, which has been accused of providing the Syrian military with ballistic missiles and chemical weapons components in defiance of U.N. sanctions. In 2019, the two countries signed an economic cooperation agreement.
In North Africa, Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries are reportedly present at bases and ports controlled by the Libyan National Army of rebel warlord Khalifa Hifter. Researchers say the group is present in more than a dozen nations on the continent.
North Korea has a network of military front companies in Africa that experts say make the choice of those midpoint countries advantageous as well.
“The North Koreans have established routes there that they could maneuver,” said Ken Gause, an expert on North Korea with the think tank CNA, noting that “the United States has a lot of surveillance over North Korea” making direct routes via Siberia less attractive.
Earlier this fall, North Korea vehemently denied allegations that it might be supplying weapons to Russia. That it is carrying out the deals is a sign, experts say, that the country is either beholden to Moscow — or has something it wants to gain by doing this favor for Russia now.
North Korea’s prime occupation is its standing on the Korean Peninsula, where its protracted standoff with South Korea grew particularly testy Wednesday. Amid joint military drills between South Korea and the United States, the North conducted missiles launches, with one missile landing near South Korean waters, prompting Seoul to return fire.
North Korea also has sought to develop its own tactical nuclear arsenal — weapons Russia has more of than any other country in the world. “I would guess that North Korea’s doing this to get Russia to give them some help they had previously refused them,” Bennett said. “When you’re leading a country that is such a rogue state as Kim Jong Un is in North Korea, you’ve got to take whatever opportunities come along.”
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