The UK has provided satellite photographs of North Korean cargo shipments to Russia to a panel of UN experts as part of an attempt to trigger an official investigation into arms deals in violation of international sanctions.
North Korea has been accused of supplying ballistic missiles and hundreds of thousands of artillery shells to the Russian government for its war in Ukraine since Vladimir Putin met with Kim Jong-un in Russia’s far east in September.
Their bilateral relationship appears to be expanding. Putin met the North Korean foreign minister, Choe Son-hui, in the Kremlin this week during a rare, five-day trip by the senior Pyongyang official. The two discussed “further development of our relations in all areas, including sensitive ones”, according to a Kremlin spokesperson.
An unpublished UK defence intelligence report seen by the Guardian shows imagery taken between September and December of three Russian ships, the Maia, Angara and Maria, loading containers at North Korea’s revived Najin port before transiting to Russian ports in the far east. While the agency said it could not identify what was in the containers, it followed a US announcement last week that ballistic missiles from North Korea had been used by Russia in Ukraine last week.
“Russia’s use of North Korean weapons in Ukraine is a violation of multiple UN security council resolutions,” said a UN diplomat. “It undermines international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and exposes just how desperate Russia has become in its failed invasion. This and other evidence submitted to the UN sanctions committee should trigger a full investigation into Russia and DPRK’s [North Korea’s] flagrant breaking of international sanctions.”
The report, along with other evidence from the United States and other countries, was provided to the UN panel of experts on North Korean proliferation, which is expected next month to publish its first final report since suspected North Korean shipments of ammunition to Russia sharply increased this year.
The ships in the report were all placed under sanctions by the US government in 2022 for their links to the Russian ministry of defence’s shipping company, Oboronlogistika OOO, which has “been involved in Russia’s illegal seizure and occupation of Crimea since 2014, as well as private Russian maritime shipping companies that transport weapons and other military equipment for the [government of Russia]”.
Two of the three ships were also identified in a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute thinktank. It showed a growth in transshipments from North Korea to Russia that “reveal that Russia has likely begun shipping North Korean munitions at scale”. A third was identified by NK News, an independent news website focusing on North Korea, as “part of a group of commercial vessels that have completed multiple deliveries of military equipment and munitions provided by the DPRK to Russia”.
The deliveries have been cited as enabling military strikes against Ukraine in December and January that “killed dozens of people and injured hundreds more”.
Prosecutors in Kharkiv told the Guardian that suspected fragments of North Korean-made Iskander missiles had been sent to Kyiv for analysis and said the missiles had subtle differences: hand-drawn lettering for serial numbers, and a different nozzle exhaust cone and welding.
A statement released by eight members of the security council, including the UK and US, said: “These heinous attacks were conducted, in part, using ballistic missiles and ballistic missile launchers procured from [North Korea].”
The White House’s senior director for arms control, Pranay Vaddi, said this week that the military cooperation between Russia and North Korea was “unprecedented” and warned that Russian military assistance to North Korea could undermine the US nuclear deterrence policy in South Korea and Japan.
“I think the nature of North Korea as a threat in the region could drastically change over the coming decade as a result of this cooperation,” he told the Center for Strategic and International Studies thinktank.
Choe met Putin, the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the deputy prime minister Alexander Novak during her visit to Russia.
North Korea also signalled that it may be receiving Russian help for its space programme.
Before the meeting with Putin, a member of the North Korean delegation was photographed with a document apparently titled Observation List in Space Technology Field, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
The list appeared to include the Progress Rocket Space Centre and the Voronezh mechanical plant, known to produce engines, although the writing was not completely clear, the news agency wrote.
Putin had previously pledged to help North Korea build satellites, and North Korea managed to launch its first spy satellite in November. South Korea alleged that Russia had helped build the spy satellite.