WASHINGTON – The Russian Ministry of Defense is in the process of purchasing millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for its ongoing fight in Ukraine, according to a newly downgraded U.S. intelligence finding.
Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said Tuesday that “the information that we have is that Russia has specifically asked for ammunition.” He said the U.S. has seen indications Russia approached North Korea, but said he had no other details, including whether money has changed hands or any shipments are in progress.
“It does demonstrate and is indicative of the situation that Russia finds itself in, in terms of its logistics and sustainment capabilities as it relates to Ukraine,” said Ryder, in the administration's first public comments on the intelligence assessment. “We assess that things are not going well on that front for Russia.”
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said there were no indications that the arms purchase had actually occurred yet or that any North Korean munitions had made it onto the Ukrainian battlefield. Still, he said the talks alone were “just another indication of how desperate Putin’s becoming."
"He was buying drones from Iran, now he’s going to buy artillery rounds from from North Korea. It’s an indication of how much his defense industrial establishment is suffering as a result of this war and the degree of desperation that he’s reaching out to countries like Iran and North Korea for assistance,” he told reporters Tuesday.
U.S. intelligence officials believe the Russians could look to purchase additional North Korean military equipment in the future. The intelligence finding was first reported by The New York Times.
Kirby said U.S. intelligence suggests that Russia is in the market for on “the scale of millions of rounds” of ammunition from North Korea, but offered no additional details.
Asked why the information was declassified, Ryder it's relevant to illustrate the condition of Russia's ongoing military campaign in Ukraine. And, he said, it shows ”they’re trying to reach out to international actors like Iran and North Korea that don’t have the best record when it comes to international stability.”
Russia’s United Nations Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia called the U.S. intelligence finding “another fake thing that’s been circulated." Nebenzia later added, “I can only laugh about it.”
The Biden administration said last week that Russia has faced technical problems with Iranian-made drones acquired from Tehran in August for use in its war with Ukraine. Russia picked up Mohajer-6 and Shahed-series unmanned aerial vehicles over several days last month as part what the Biden administration says is likely part of a Russian plan to acquire hundreds of Iranian UAVs for use in Ukraine.
North Korea has sought to tighten relations with Russia as much of Europe and the West has pulled away, blaming the United States for the Ukraine crisis and decrying the West’s “hegemonic policy” as justifying military action by Russia in Ukraine to protect itself.
The North Koreans have hinted interest in sending construction workers to help rebuild Russian-occupied territories in the country's east.
North Korea’s ambassador to Moscow recently met with envoys from two Russia-backed separatist territories in the Donbas region of Ukraine and expressed optimism about cooperation in the “field of labor migration,” citing his country’s easing pandemic border controls.
In July, North Korea became the only nation aside from Russia and Syria to recognize the independence of the territories, Donetsk and Luhansk, further aligning with Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.
The North’s arms export to Russia would be a violation of U.N. resolutions that ban the country from exporting to or importing weapons from other countries. Its possible dispatch of laborers to the Russian-held territories in Ukraine would also breach a U.N. resolution that required all member states to repatriate all North Korean workers from their soil by 2019.
There have been suspicions that China and Russia haven’t fully enforced U.N. sanctions on North Korea, complicating a U.S.-led attempt to deprive North Korea of its nuclear weapons.
The provocative move by North Korea comes as the Biden administration has become increasingly concerned about stepped-up activity by North Korea in pursuit of nuclear weapons.
North Korea has test-fired more than 30 ballistic missiles this year, including its first flights of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017, as leader Kim Jong Un pushes to advance his nuclear arsenal despite U.S.-led pressure and sanctions.
The U.S. has frequently downgraded and made public intelligence findings over the course of the grinding war in Ukraine to highlight plans for Russian misinformation operations or to throw attention on Moscow’s difficulties in prosecuting the war. Ukraine's smaller military has put up a stiff resistance against the militarily superior Russian forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim have recently exchanged letters in which they both called for “comprehensive” and “strategic and tactical” cooperation between the countries. Moscow, for its part, has issued statements condemning the revival of large-scale military exercises between the United States and South Korea this year, which North Korea views as an invasion rehearsal.
Russia, along with China, has called for the easing of U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear and missile tests. Both countries are members of the U.N. Security Council, which has approved a total of 11 rounds of sanctions on the North since 2006. In May, Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-led bid to impose new economic sanctions on North Korea over its high-profile missile tests this year.
Some experts say that Kim could likely bolster his resolve to retain his nuclear weapons because he may think the Russian attack happened because Ukraine had signed away its nuclear arsenal.
Relations between Moscow and Pyongyang go back to the 1948 foundation of North Korea, as Soviet officials installed young, ambitious nationalist Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of Kim Jong Un, as the country’s first ruler. Since then, Soviet aid shipment had been crucial in keeping North Korea’s economy afloat for decades before the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Moscow had since established formal diplomatic relations with Seoul as part of its hopes to draw South Korean investment and allowed its Soviet-era military alliance with North Korea to expire. But after his election in 2000, Putin actively sought to restore his country’s ties with North Korea in what was seen as an effort to regain its traditional domains of influence and secure more allies to better deal with the United States.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea; Lolita C. Baldor and Zeke Miller in Washington; and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.