Russia and North Korea’s military deal formalizes a bustling arms trade

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a mutual defense pact this week, vowing to “immediately provide military assistance” to the other in the case of an attack. The deal formalizes an arrangement that has strengthened since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: Munitions-hungry Moscow and cash-strapped Pyongyang, both under heavy international sanctions, are more than happy to do business.

Two days before the meeting, the U.S. State Department estimated that North Korea had supplied more than 11,000 containers of munitions to Russia since September.

A new analysis of internal Russian trade data illuminates how shipments of suspected North Korean munitions were distributed through Russia.

The data, obtained by the global security nonprofit C4ADS and provided to The Washington Post, covers shipments from August through January and shows that more than 74,000 metric tons of explosives were distributed from two ports in Russia’s Far East to 16 sites mainly along the country’s western borders near Ukraine. That weight is equal to about 1.6 million artillery shells of the type Russia has used in the war.

According to C4ADS, the sites the goods arrived at indicated they were munitions, despite the documentation referring to them as explosives.

The data does not include the origin of the shipments, but an analysis by The Post and C4ADS found evidence of Russian ship movements between North Korea and Russia during the same period.

“This is the closest thing to proof of Russian-North Korean connection when it comes to munitions transfers, and this proves that the Russians and North Koreans were lying” in denying the transfers, said Go Myong-hyun, senior research fellow at Seoul’s Institute for National Security Strategy, which is affiliated with South Korea’s intelligence agency.

“It really gives more credibility to the fact that North Korea is helping Russia to conduct its war in Ukraine,” Go said. “Unless we have photos, or the North Koreans say, ‘Look, we’ve been transferring shells to Russia,’ or something like that, this is the best we can get.”

Analysis of satellite imagery and marine traffic data by The Post and C4ADS shows that Russian-flagged vessels linked to the country’s military were docked in the North Korea port of Rajin and then later at the Russian ports of Vostochny and Dunai. Most of the explosives departed to sites in Russia within a week of arrival, according to the data.

These vessels — the Lady R, the Angara, the Maria and the MAIA-1 — are owned by Russian companies closely linked to the country’s military. While it is impossible to verify exactly what the ships were carrying, the United States and South Korea have previously publicly named the four vessels as involved in transporting North Korean weapons to Russia based on satellite imagery and press reports.

The influx of North Korean ammunition helped shift the war back in Russia’s favor, said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It has been one of the “critical factors affecting the conduct of operations and who has the advantage in a war characterized by attrition,” Kofman said.

The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think tank that also uses satellite imagery to monitor movements between North Korea and Russia, saw the same patterns. The group found 27 shipments between the North Korean port of Rajin and the two Russian ports between roughly the same period, estimating that thousands of containers had been moved, although the contents of the containers remain unknown.

The shipments went to 16 sites across Russia, 12 of them near known ammunition storage facilities, according to the trade data, which C4ADS obtained from a person with access to documentation in the Russian transportation and logistics industry, whom The Post is not identifying due to safety risks. This indicated to experts that these explosives were likely to be munitions.

The facilities near the sites listed in the data are affiliated with artillery and rocket storage, and some can store artillery and other armored vehicle rounds, said Dara Massicot, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who reviewed the findings at the request of The Post.

There also were facilities that report to the department within Russia’s Ministry of Defense that oversees the procurement of weapons for the Russian military, known as GRAU, and those facilities typically store artillery rounds, rockets, missiles and many other types of ammunition, Massicot said.

“While we cannot be sure of what exactly they are delivering, the explosive labels … and delivery to storage bases near Ukraine and to sensitive GRAU ammunition storage facilities elsewhere across Russia, suggests these shipments are likely delivering a variety of ammunition types to Russia, from artillery rounds to rockets,” Massicot said.

Satellite images show visible changes at several of these sites. From September through December, containers appeared near the ammunition depots. New protective berms indicating expanded storage areas were also seen at these sites.

“A massive buildup of berms, commonly used to isolate explosives, indicate the explosives are likely munitions,” said Margaux Garcia, a Russia analyst at C4ADS. “Additionally, the fact that these shipments are traveling west toward the Russia-Ukraine border suggests that Russia intends to use these munitions in the war effort.”

More than five shipments were also sent to the JSC Voskresenskiy Agregatniy Zavod (VAZ) missile-assembly factory, which is about 40 miles outside Moscow and has been sanctioned by the United States.

Russia, its munitions stocks running low in its war with Ukraine, has been relying on its few remaining allies for resupply, while isolated North Korea is always looking for ways to earn money.

Shunned by the West over his invasion of Ukraine, Putin is seeking partners who share his anti-Western stance, including China, Iran and North Korea. This week, Kim extolled the “firm alliance” with Moscow and openly backed Putin’s war against Ukraine — the strongest support for Russia’s invasion from any foreign leader.

Kim similarly is facing increasing economic sanctions and isolation because of his nuclear ambitions. He needs food, fuel, cash and weapons technology — all of which Russia can provide.

Although it is unclear what North Korea has received in return so far, there are indications that Russian technology was used in North Korea’s recent efforts to launch a spy satellite into space, South Korean parliamentary intelligence committee member Yoo Sang-bum told reporters last year, citing the nation’s intelligence agency.

More about this story: C4ADS found no evidence that the Russian-flagged ships offloaded any cargo at Vostochny during December, and the trade data did not record any explosives leaving the port that month, said Andrew Boling, who manages research on state-sponsored threats in the maritime space at C4ADS.

The Post and C4ADS’s analysis excluded ships not capable of carrying munitions-filled containers and vessels arriving from Japan, South Korea or Taiwan, which have all sharply criticized Russia’s war against Ukraine. The analysis ruled out vessels coming from China, because there is no accusation of Chinese munitions being used in Russia.

Michelle Ye Hee Lee reported from Seoul.

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