North Korea leans on Russia to bolster weapons trade

US warns Pyongyang will ‘pay a price’ for arming Moscow in Ukraine conflict

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspected five major munitions factories within a single week last month, calling on engineers and officials to increase production of weapons ranging from intercontinental ballistic missile launchers and cruise missile engines to sniper and assault rifles.

The tour of weapons manufacturers, which was widely publicised in North Korean state media and included stops at factories producing rocket shells and drone engines, was part of a summer campaign to promote the “modernisation” of his country’s arms industry as Pyongyang seeks to cash in on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Kim is expected to travel to Russia this week to meet President Vladimir Putin and discuss weapons sales, according to a White House official. The planned trip follows a visit to Pyongyang in July by Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Kim treated to a personal tour of a weapons exhibition that featured combat and surveillance drones and the latest generation of the regime’s ICBMs.

“Kim is trying to promote his weapons industry abroad, showing off its weapons production capacity and facilities to potential customers,” said Yang Uk, a defence expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.


“Russia has failed to secure enough weapons necessary for the Ukraine war, so it is keen to secure more of them from North Korea,” Yang added, noting that Kim and Shoigu were accompanied by Aleksey Krivoruchko, Russia’s deputy defence minister responsible for military procurement.

The US has grown increasingly alarmed by the possibility of an expanding weapons trade between North Korea and Russia at a potentially pivotal moment in the war in Ukraine, as Moscow seeks to repel a counteroffensive by Kyiv.

“Providing weapons to Russia ... to try to conquer territory that belongs to another sovereign nation, this is not going to reflect well on North Korea and they will pay a price for this in the international community,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday.

Sullivan added: “It says a lot that Russia is having to turn to a country like North Korea to seek to bolster its defence capacity.”

Kim’s expected trip to the eastern Russian port city of Vladivostok would mark the first time the North Korean leader has left the country since 2019. Russia also floated a proposal for North Korea to participate in joint naval drills alongside China, after Shoigu pledged to “strengthen co-operation” between the countries on his trip.

Yang noted North Korea was able to offer a range of weapons that could make a meaningful contribution on the battlefield in Ukraine, including ammunition, multiple rocket launchers and short-range ballistic missiles. The US has previously accused North Korea of supplying infantry rockets and missiles to the Russian private militia Wagner Group.

Kim “wants to send a message that North Korea can produce and supply these weapons”, said Yang. “I think the deal has already been done – that’s why Kim is visiting Russia.”

The news website Daily NK said Pyongyang was prioritising older arms for export as it upgraded its own weapons systems. Analysts said Russia could offer grain, oil, military technology as well as hard currency as payment. “They must be closely discussing these things at the moment,” said Cheong Seong-chang, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul.

North Korea has a long history of defence co-operation with the Soviet Union, its former patron, and many North Korean rockets and weapons systems closely resemble or even duplicate Soviet designs, including some still deployed by Russia.

Soon after the Soviet Union collapsed, Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-sung acquired the designs for a ground-launched version of the first Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missile, laying the foundations for Pyongyang’s own liquid-fuel ballistic missile programme.

The North Korean KN-23 short-range ballistic missile, which was on display for Shoigu, is regarded by experts as near-identical to the Russian Iskander missile, which Moscow has used to bombard Ukrainian territory.

“If [Russia] can get more sophisticated weapons from North Korea at cheaper prices, there is no reason why Moscow would not do it,” said Yang.

Analysts said Kim’s tour of North Korean munitions factories also served to remind the US, South Korea and other adversaries of Pyongyang’s success in developing formidable weapons systems despite international sanctions and its extreme self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the facilities Kim inspected in August, the March 16 Factory at Phyongsong just north of the North Korean capital, produces “transporter erector launchers” for missiles including the solid-fuel Hwasong-18 ICBM, which is believed by many western missile experts to be capable of striking the US mainland.

Cheong said while North Korea had relied heavily on foreign assistance during the early stages of its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, it no longer needed Moscow’s help to produce nuclear weapons.

Instead, North Korea’s modernisation efforts rely principally on domestic programmes supplemented by illicit financing and procurement networks and technologies acquired through cyber hacking – including against Russia.

North Korean hacker groups ScarCruft and the Lazarus Group in 2021 and 2022 infiltrated NPO Mashinostroyeniya, Russia’s missile design bureau, even as the countries intensified defence co-operation, according to US cyber security group Sentinel One.

Cheong said Kim may attempt to leverage his relationship with Putin to secure Russian assistance for the next generation of North Korea’s defence assets, including nuclear-powered submarines and military reconnaissance satellites. North Korea made two failed attempts this year to launch a spy satellite into space.

Cheong added that while China, traditionally North Korea’s closest partner, remained wary about being seen to facilitate Pyongyang’s military ambitions, Russia’s break with the West over its invasion of Ukraine meant Moscow no longer had any such inhibitions.

“China doesn’t want to see its relations with the US deteriorate further, so it is reluctant to expand military co-operation with North Korea,” said Cheong. “But Russia has no reason to curry favour with the US.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023