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Ghost ships reveal North Korea’s secret arms trade with Russia, posing threat to Ukraine – Bloomberg

Recent satellite imagery indicates heightened activity at a dormant North Korean port near the Russian border, suggesting a revived trade route for arms shipments. The Najin port has witnessed consistent ship traffic since October.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un during the summit in Russia on 13 September 2023. Credit: North Korea’s Central News Agency

Satellite imagery shows that a dormant North Korean port near the border with Russia has become active again, Bloomberg reported. Experts say this signals growing trade between the two countries, likely including arms shipments destined for Ukraine.

The Najin port has seen steady ship traffic since October, when the US accused North Korea of sending munitions to Russia. Some of those weapons allegedly reached Ukraine later. These North Korean arms shipments could grow more important for Russia’s war effort.

“Pyongyang’s decision to deliver munitions at scale once again underscores the grave threat that North Korea poses to international security, this time feeding a conflagration on European soil that has already cost the lives of tens of thousands of Ukrainians and consumed tens of billions of dollars in Western military support,” according to a report by the Royal United Services Institute, a UK security think tank.

Analysis of satellite images suggests an ongoing exchange of cargo between Najin and the Russian port of Dunay just across the border. The nature of the cargo can’t be confirmed, but the volume implies military supplies. Vessels appear to turn off their transponders, becoming “ghost ships.”

“Satellite imagery shows that round trips of cargo vessels between Najin, North Korea, and Dunay, Russia, have continued unabatedly despite additional US sanctions and widespread reporting on this activity in the past few months,” said Jaewoo Shin, an analyst at the Open Nuclear Network in Vienna.

According to South Korea’s intelligence service, there have been about 10 shipments of North Korean weapons to Russia since August, totaling over 1 million artillery rounds. Weapons experts say these supplies allow Russia to sustain higher pressure on Ukrainian forces. North Korea holds large stores of munitions that can be used by Russian systems.

The October report by RUSI examined numerous high-resolution images, determining that a small number of cargo vessels were consistently traveling between Najin and Dunay, presumably carrying North Korean arms destined for transit across Russia. According to Joseph Byrne, a research fellow at RUSI and co-author of the report, this trade seems to have persisted since the report’s release:

“There has been a continuation of deliveries by these vessels,” he said, adding there is “a continuation of the unloading of boxes loaded in Russia and delivered to North Korea and then the loading of containers that have seemingly comes down from rail cars from other places in North Korea to apparently be shipped back to Russian military facilities.”

According to South Korea’s intelligence, North Korea has shipped around 10 loads of weapons to Russia since August, likely totaling over 1 million artillery rounds. With its massive stockpiles, North Korea can provide munitions compatible with Russian systems used on the frontlines.

Weapons expert Joost Oliemans, co-author of “The Armed Forces of North Korea,” said he has “seen no signs of the transfer rate slowing down” in the weeks since. By his estimate, that’s potentially another half million shells supplied. Through analysis, Oliemans identified recent North Korean deliveries as including 120mm mortars, 122mm and 152mm artillery shells, and 122mm rockets.

As Oliemans stated, these weapons “impact the battlefield” by enabling Russia to “keep up much higher pressure for longer on Ukrainian forces.” An extra million shells could mean another 2,700 rounds fired at Ukraine daily. With its own strained supplies, Ukraine would struggle to withstand such barrages without US aid.

However, Oliemans noted “how much exactly North Korea will be able to deliver is anyone’s guess.” He expects the pace to eventually slow as North Korean “inventories become depleted,” since its “manufacturing capabilities” cannot meet Russia’s high demand indefinitely.

As sanctions limit their options, Russia and North Korea have rekindled economic ties. North Korea gains resources to ease economic pressure, while Russia receives military supplies. 

“With both Kim and Putin recognizing the utility and benefits of partnership, cooperation is likely to continue between North Korea and Russia into next year,” said Soo Kim, a former Korea analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, who now works at US-based management consulting firm LMI.

“The give-and-take between the two countries is unlikely to be stopped so long as the international consequences — sanctions, reputational shaming — remain symbolic and largely insufficient to deter bad behavior,” she said.

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