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North Korea denies U.S. claims it supplies arms to Russia

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, at the opening of an exhibition of weapons systems in Pyongyang last year. (KCNA/KNS/AP)

SEOUL — North Korea has denied U.S. intelligence reports that it supplied weapons to Russia, accusing Washington of spreading rumors aimed at tarnishing Pyongyang’s image.

“We have never exported weapons or ammunition to Russia before and we will not plan to export them,” a senior North Korean defense official was quoted as saying in state media on Thursday. The official accused “the U.S. and other hostile forces” of spreading “a rumor of arms dealings between the DPRK and Russia,” referring to North Korea by its official name.

Thursday’s statement, carried by North Korea’s Central News Agency, follows a newly declassified intelligence assessment from Washington that Russia was seeking to buy North Korean weapons for its war in Ukraine. Earlier this month, State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said “the Russian Ministry of Defense is in the process of purchasing millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for use in Ukraine.”

“We warn the U.S. to stop making reckless remarks” criticizing Pyongyang and “to keep its mouth shut,” North Korea’s statement said, which was attributed to an official identified only as a vice director of the General Bureau of Equipment.

While denying any arms sales to Russia, the official defended North Korea’s right to make such military deals. “Not only the development, production, possession of military equipment, but also their export and import are the lawful right peculiar to a sovereign state, and nobody is entitled to criticize it.”

Biden administration officials said the weapons transfer plan indicates that sanctions-strapped Russia was forced to approach the regime of Kim Jong Un to help source weaponry for its invasion of Ukraine. Moscow responded to the U.S. intelligence reports by calling them “fake.”

Even amid widespread international condemnation of the war, North Korea has openly supported its Cold War ally Russia. Earlier this year, Kim exchanged messages with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, promising to expand relations to “new strategic heights.” North Korea is one of a handful of countries that officially recognized the independence of the Moscow-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. North Korea and Russia share land and maritime borders, which served as trade routes before coronavirus border lockdowns.

Any weapons trade with North Korea would be in violation of U.N. sanctions imposed on the regime to curb its nuclear and missile activities. In defiance of the sanctions, the Kim regime has continued its military pursuits, including an unprecedented flurry of ballistic missile tests this year. Officials in Seoul and Washington said earlier this year that North Korea was preparing for its first nuclear test in five years.

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