At the end of August, U.S. officials at the United Nations headquarters in New York and White House officials in Washington cited intelligence reports that Moscow was seeking weapons and ammunition from North Korea. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, stated that “Russia is negotiating potential deals for significant quantities and multiple types of munitions from the DPRK [North Korea] to be used against Ukraine.” Thomas-Greenfield said, “Any such arms deals would be a serious violation of resolutions the Security Council adopted unanimously.”
At the same time in Washington, Admiral John Kirby, White House National Security spokesperson, said that U.S. intelligence has information that Russia is seeking “artillery ammunition particularly, but we have information that they’re seeking other types of munitions to assist in their war in Ukraine.” He added that Russia was also seeking electronic and other components for the production of higher-grade missiles and rockets, “but artillery seems to be the main focus.” Kirby suggested that the war has become “an artillery duel between the Ukrainians and the Russians” and “both sides are working through their inventories of artillery at a pretty fast clip.”
Handshakes and Toasts at the Vostochny Cosmodrome
Just a few days later on September 13, for the first time in over four years, North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un traveled outside North Korea, and this travel was for an in-person meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kim’s last foreign trip to meet with Putin was in April 2019 in Vladivostok. That meeting came just two months after the dramatic failure of the Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi.
The Russian and North Korean leaders met last week in Russia’s Far East at the Vostochny Cosmodrome—a Russian spacecraft launch facility which has been operational for the last decade. That facility was developed in order to keep this key element of Russia’s space and missile program within Russia’s current boundaries. (After the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia’s long-time principal space launch facility at Baikonur was in the newly independent country of Kazakshtan and no longer under Moscow’s direct control. Kazakhstan was recognized by Russia as an independent nation in December 1991.)
Symbolically, meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome made the point that Russia and North Korea were cooperating on military and missile technology. One hour before the formal Putin-Kim meeting began, North Korea test fired two short-range missiles which splashed down off the North Korean Coast. The strategic missile test and the timing of the missile firing were obviously intended to emphasize that the focus of the summit with Putin was on strategic military cooperation.
Kim and Putin met on Wednesday September 13, but the North Korean leader spent a total of six days in Russia. Kim is reluctant to fly, and he traveled to Russia and back in his heavily armored personal train. The heavily armored rail cars had to move slowly to avoid damaging Russia’s steel railroad tracks. The trip from Pyongyang to the Cosmodrome in Siberia and back totaled some 2,500 miles—roughly the equivalent of the distance from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. Kim included stops at a variety of places coming and going, and press reporting on the visit made clear his interests. On the return journey to Pyongyang, for example, Kim stopped to visit a Russian factory where fighter jets are built.
The site of the formal summit meeting and the places Kim visited on his six days in Russia emphasized that the focus of the visit was security. The press comments from Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin also accented the focus on military cooperation between the two leaders and their countries. Kim strongly endorsed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling it a “sacred struggle to defend Russia against Western imperialism.” At the state dinner following the meetings on September 13, Kim called for a Russian victory in Ukraine and pledged Pyongyang’s solidarity with Moscow in the struggle to protect its “sovereign right of security.”
In comments to journalists after their meeting, Putin expressed support for Kim, and emphasized the cordial ties between the two countries and their support for each other. When asked if Russia would help North Korea build satellites, Putin responded, “that’s why they came here,” obviously highlighting the symbolic importance of meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome.
Putin did make a couple of proforma statements suggesting Russian caution in providing aid to North Korea in light of UN Security Council sanctions which Russia has supported in the past. At one point he said “we are discussing the prospects, within existing rules.” He also noted that Russia faced “certain restrictions” as a result of United Nations sanctions, but he said there are possibilities for cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang, clearly implying that there were ways of getting around those obstacles.
Russia’s Need for North Korean Weapons in Ukraine
In many ways the course of Russia’s war against Ukraine is more akin to what one expects from a banana republic, not a superpower with a permanent seat and veto power in the UN Security Council. Shortly before the Putin-Kim summit, there was media discussion of Russian efforts to find arms and ammunition because of dwindling supplies.
The Russian military has faced stubborn resistance from Ukraine since Moscow’s unprovoked surprise attack in February 2022. Russian military leaders initially expected their military forces would take quick and decisive military action against Ukraine and the country would quickly raise the flag of surrender. We have now seen nineteen months of conflict since the initial Russian attack. Determined resistance from Ukraine has continued, the United States and other NATO allies have provided aid, and Ukraine has slowly but steadily pushed back Russian troops from their initial territorial gains.
The idea of Russia turning to North Korea for help with weapons for its fight with Ukraine has received so much attention because it seems so implausible that Russia needs help against Ukraine. Nineteen months ago on February 24, 2022, Russia launched pre-dawn missile strikes against Ukraine. Within a few weeks, ground troops were in control of large swaths of Ukrainian territory, and Russian troops had reached suburbs of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
Since the peak of the Russian occupation in the early weeks of the war, however, Ukrainian forces have fought back, and Ukraine has received support from the United States, NATO and a number of other countries around the world. Now as the 20th month of the conflict begins, half of the territory seized by Russian forces at the beginning of the war has been retaken by Ukraine. Several weeks ago, an apparent coup against the Kremlin was launched by former Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group, a mercenary force used by Moscow. That coup attempt ended with Prigozhin’s death when the plane on which he was traveling was blown up.
Problems with the length and the indecisive course of the Russian war against Ukraine may have strained domestic support for Putin. As the war has dragged on, there are reports of growing popular dissatisfaction in Russia. Government officials in Moscow have carefully covered up and minimized the number deaths of soldiers in Ukraine to minimize public unease. Official figures released for the first seven months of the war showed only 5,937 Russian deaths. Official numbers have apparently not been published since then. Unofficial statistical calculations (including statistical methods used to calculate COVID deaths in the United States), however, indicate a far higher number of deaths. In 2022 Russia had 25,000 more inheritance cases for males 15 to 49 than expected based on previous statistics. That number climbed to 47,000 by May 2023.
The British Ministry of Defense calculated forty to sixty thousand Russian deaths in Ukraine by mid-2023. The U.S. intelligence assessment, according to leaked information, calculates 35,000 to 43,000 in the first year of the war alone. An August 2023 U.S. estimate of casualties (deaths and serious injuries) was half a million in the fighting thus far. U.S. military information suggests that the Russian military has faced criticism among its population for undercounting casualties in Ukraine.
The response to the Ukraine war by Russian men of military age has been less than enthusiastic. The Duma adopted legislation raising the maximum draft age from 27 to 30 years of age because additional troops are needed. Officials are “cracking down” on draft dodgers. Moscow has imposed its first large scale conscription since World War II, and draftees are prohibited from leaving the country after call-up and before reporting for duty.
Ukraine’s unexpectedly robust response to the Russian attack, has drawn-out the conflict and exposed serious weaknesses in the Russian military. Russia has traditionally had abundant stores of war materiel but has had limited need for it in the past. Now that it is suddenly being consumed rapidly, the limited capacity of Russia’s war production industry has become evident.
A recent CSIS analysis of military equipment and capabilities in the Ukraine conflict concluded that Ukraine has been helped “to rapidly upgrade its own military and to vigorously contest Russian forces,” and this has resulted “in heavy attrition of Russian military capabilities and extraordinarily high equipment losses. Sanctions have also had an immediate impact on Russian defense production by abruptly severing supply linkages with Russia.” While Russia still has battlefield resources to carry on the war in Ukraine, materiel is increasingly in short supply. One analysis estimated that Russia has already lost almost 10,000 key pieces of equipment such as tanks, trucks, major artillery and aerial drones.
North Korea has been the recipient of Soviet/Russian war material in the past, and the North has significant stockpiles. The ammunition and equipment North Korea produces is compatible with existing Russian equipment and training. Pyongyang can reduce its own immediate needs for such equipment by reducing periodic training, and minimizing belligerence toward South Korea, Japan, and the United States. North Korea is a good potential source military equipment that Russia needs.
Russia’s Search for Weapons Leads to Unraveling of UN Sanctions Against North Korea
Since the first North Korean nuclear weapon test in 2006, the United Nations Security Council pushed back against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and this has included the support of Russia and China. The imposition of UN sanctions requires an affirmative vote of 9 of the 15 members of the UN Security Council, including a favorable vote of all five permanent Security Council members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States).
Only a week after North Korea’s first nuclear test, the UN Security Council unanimously called for Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program and imposed sanctions against sale or transfer of heavy weaponry and materials and technology contributing to nuclear weapons in North Korea. These sanctions have been extended and strengthened by the UN Security Council on several occasions since 2006. (The Arms Control Association has a concise summary of the various UN sanctions that have been adopted.)
Military cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang involving the transfer of military technology and equipment between the two countries has been branded “a serious violation of U.N. sanctions.” Since 2006 the UN nuclear sanctions against Pyongyang have been approved by an overwhelming number of UN member countries. That broad consensus began to unravel after the Russian attack against Ukraine. In May 2022—three months after Russian military forces illegally entered Ukraine—Russia and China vetoed a United States draft UN Security Council resolution to strengthen sanctions against North Korea. Previous to that vote, the UN Security Council had unanimously approved such resolutions on nine separate occasions over the previous fifteen years.
Earlier this year, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nation Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the UN Security Council that Chinese and Russian “obstructionism” was encouraging North Korea “to launch ballistic missiles with impunity” and this could lead to the development and production of more sophisticated and dangerous weapons. Russia and China have argued that the Security Council should avoid harsh criticism and seek to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, although Pyongyang has shown little or no interest in discussing its nuclear program with UN member countries.
During Kim Jong-un’s visit to eastern Russia last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov argued in a press conference that the geopolitical climate had changed completely since the UN imposed sanctions on North Korea in 2006 for its nuclear weapons development and testing program. Lavrov accused the United States and “Western” countries of breaking pledges of humanitarian assistance for the North.
A particularly good summation of the situation was the statement by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 20: “It is paradoxical that a permanent member of the UN Security Council, entrusted as the ultimate guardian of world peace, would wage war by invading another sovereign nation and receive arms and ammunition from a regime that blatantly violates Security Council resolutions.”
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons