SEOUL – Rumors, allegations and accusations that North Korea is supplying arms to Russian forces for use in the Ukraine war are gathering pace and resonance.
On December 22, the White House accused North Korea of sending arms to Russian private military contractor the Wagner Group. Separately, a Japanese newspaper claimed that a shipment of munitions had traveled by train from North Korea to Russia last month.
North Korea denied the rumors via state media today (December 23). Pyongyang had also denied earlier US allegations, in September and November, that it was supplying Russia with arms.
However, North Korea – like Russia – deploys a massive artillery force, with some of it capable of hitting Seoul located 30 miles south. But much of its tactical artillery is Soviet-era legacy equipment and thus uses the same calibers – 122mm and 152mm – as Russia’s current-generation field artillery.
Russia, which prioritizes artillery in its operational doctrines, has been making massed use of both tube and rocket artillery in Ukraine, leading some observers to estimate its ammunition stocks are running low. Other pundits, however, say that Russia has huge dumps of Soviet-era “dumb” ammunition that can be mobilized for the fight.
The Wagner Group is taking an increasingly high profile in the Russian war effort in Ukraine. Its apparently expendable troops are taking on the kind of high-risk assault operations that the attrited regular Russian formations may be unable or unwilling to do.
If, indeed, North Korea has directly supplied the Wagner Group with munitions, it would be the latest sign of the paramilitary group’s increasing role in the Russian war effort – and its formidable owner’s profile within the Russian body politic.
The accusations swirl
The White House’s National Security Council Spokesman Jack Kirby said that the Wagner Group has received arms supplies from North Korea, according to reports from the United States. Kirby alleged that the shipment, sent last month, contained rockets and missiles.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield accused Russia – itself a permanent member of the UN Security Council – of breaching UN Security Council sanctions by buying arms from North Korea. It was “despicable,” she said, according to the reports.
Earlier yesterday, left-leaning Japanese media the Tokyo Shimbun reported that North Korea sent a rail shipment of shells and rockets “worth millions of dollars” into Russia on November 20.
The Japanese newspaper, citing “sources familiar with the North Korean situation”, said that a rail shipment had been sent last month containing rockets and shells worth millions of dollars, to Russia.
Asia Times understands that the source of the story was in North Korea.
The Tokyo Shimbum’s story added that further deliveries of anti-tank and anti-air missiles are also due “in the coming weeks” – possibly synching with the White House’s allegation that further North Korean shipments are forthcoming.
A 17-kilometer border, complete with a rail link over the “Friendship Bridge” spanning the Tumen River, fuses North Korea’s northeast with the Russian Far East. The rail connects to Russia’s Trans-Siberian line, connecting Western Russia with the Russian Far East across the Eurasian landmass.
On Friday, North Korean state media, monitored in Seoul, responded to the Japanese allegations by calling them an “absurd red herring.” It added that US allegations were “baseless rumors” spread by “dishonest forces.”
While it is impossible to state what kind of human intelligence US and Japan maintain inside North Korea and the Russian border area, any covered train would be impervious to satellite reconnaissance, though it is feasible that US satellites snooped on the train’s earlier loading process from North Korean arms depots.
That the alleged end-user of the munitions is the Wagner Group should come as no surprise. In its war on Ukraine, Russia has used a range of specialist and semi-formal units to undertake some of the most dangerous operations.
These include crack VDV airborne units, which were used widely – and took heavy casualties – at the outset of the war; Chechen light infantry and MPs, who advanced along the coastal corridor during the fight for Mariupol but who recently suffered major casualties on a behind-the-lines rest area; and the highly experienced, but heavily attrited, units of the Donetsk and Luhanks breakaway republics.
In the most recent stage of the fighting, it is the mercenary-manned Wagner PMC that is taking on the spearhead role in the Russian war effort on its major battlefront.
Wagner rises through the ranks
Western PMCs in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were largely used in support roles, as contractors engaged in supply, repair, body guarding and escorting. That freed regular GIs, and their allies, for combat duties.
Wagner’s modus operandi is different.
The Russian PMC formerly operated in the shadows in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. But in a foreshadowing of its role in Ukraine, it is believed to have taken on a direct-action, light-infantry tasking in Syria where it was allegedly decimated by US air power.
In Ukraine, however, it is an open combatant. And not only are its troops taking a high-profile role in the war; the company cast aside all pretenses of deniability and opened an official headquarters building in St Petersburg last month.
In Ukraine, Wagner was heavily engaged in seizing the strategic town of Popasna, and is now perhaps the leading unit in the fighting for the embattled city of Bakhmut. UK government sources say the Wagner deployment in Ukraine has expanded from 1,000 to some 20,000 men, according to the BBC.
While the PMC was believed, early in the war, to have recruited its mercenary volunteers from among veterans of elite and special operations units of the Russian Armed Forces, it has in recent months been deploying convict troops – a tradition that dates back to the darkest days of World War II.
This makes cynical sense given the nature of the combat. Bakhmut and its environs are the scene of the most intense battles currently underway in Ukraine: The largely abandoned and shattered town has been described as a “meat grinder.”
Russia has been trying to fight its way into the town using its key advantage over Ukraine – massed tactical artillery. In this combat format, the use of “cannon fodder” to advance and identify Ukrainian defensive positions – enabling those positions to subsequently be bombarded with artillery – is a feasible, if callous, tactic.
Such casualty-intensive maneuvers are a waste of skilled manpower, hence the deployment of expendable convicts as storm troops. Wagner’s higher-value, experienced operatives are likely taking leadership and coordination, rather than direct assault, roles.
Exactly how command and coordination is exercised over and between the “official” Russian armed forces, the militias of the two Donbas republics and Wagner is unclear.
Footage has emerged online showing a man assumed to be Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin – himself an ex-convict – visiting a Russian prison yard on a recruiting pitch. More recently, Asia Times has viewed video that is alleged to be of Prigozhin visiting an artillery position behind the front in Ukraine.
The soaring profile of Prigozhin, a noted Putin associate, within the Russian body politic has alarmed some analysts who assume that he has political ambitions.
The alleged delivery of North Korean munitions direct to Wagner, rather than to the Russian Armed Forces per se, is just the latest indication of the PMC’s, and Prigozhin’s, ascent in a wartime environment.
It has raised hackles in Washington, where Kirby suggested that the company is emerging as a rival power center to the Russian armed forces. That may be reasonable to assume, given that regular Russian personnel have underperformed on the battlefield.
“We assess that the amount of material delivered to Wagner will not change the battlefield dynamics in Ukraine,” Kirby said. “But we’re certainly concerned that North Korea is planning to deliver more military equipment.”
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