Ukraine-Russia war: why we are worried about Moscow using missiles made in North Korea

Ukraine-Russia war: why we are worried about Moscow using missiles made in North Korea
Ukraine-Russia war: why we are worried about Moscow using missiles made in North Korea

Photo credit, Getty Images

Image caption, The South Korean government recently found that North Korea had shipped 6,700 containers of munitions to Russia.
Article information
  • Author, John Mackenzie
  • Role, BBC correspondent in Seoul
  • 13 minutes ago

On January 2, a young Ukrainian weapons inspector, Khrystyna Kimachuk, learned that an unusual-looking missile had crashed into a building in the city of Kharkiv.

She began calling her contacts in the Ukrainian military, desperate to analyze it. Within a week, she received the shell fragments at a safe location in the capital, kyiv.

Kimachuk began taking it apart and photographing every part, including the screws and computer chips that were smaller than his fingernails. Almost immediately, she realized it wasn’t a Russian missile, but she had to prove it.

Hidden in the mess of metal and wires, Kimachuk spotted a tiny character from the Korean alphabet. Then she comes across a more revealing detail: the number 112 was stamped on certain parts of the envelope. This figure corresponds to the year 2023 on the North Korean calendar.

She realizes that she has before her the first tangible proof that North Korean weapons are being used to attack her country.

“We had heard that some weapons had been delivered to Russia, but I was able to see them, touch them and examine them like no one had ever been able to before. It was very exciting,” he told me. she confided by telephone from kyiv.

Since then, the Ukrainian military claims that Russia has fired dozens of North Korean missiles into its territory. These shots left at least 24 dead and more than 70 injured.

Despite all the recent rumors that Kim Jong Un is preparing to start nuclear war, the more immediate threat is North Korea’s ability to fuel existing wars and global instability.

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Image caption, Unusual-looking remains that hide many clues.

Kimachuk works for Conflict Armament Research (CAR), an organization that collects weapons used in war to find out how they were made. But it wasn’t until she finished photographing the missile wreckage and her team analyzed its hundreds of parts that the most startling revelation was made.

The machine was full of components from the latest foreign technologies. Most electronic parts have been manufactured in the United States and Europe in recent years. There was even an American computer chip created in March 2023.

This means that North Korea illegally acquired critical weapons components, smuggled them into the country, assembled the missile, and secretly shipped it to Russia, where it was then transported to the line head-on and used, all in the space of a few months.

“This was the biggest surprise: despite the severe sanctions imposed for almost twenty years, North Korea still manages to obtain everything it needs to manufacture its weapons, and at an extraordinary speed,” says Damien Spleeters , deputy director of CAR.

In London, Joseph Byrne, a North Korea specialist at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defense think tank, is equally stunned.

“I never thought I would see North Korean ballistic missiles used to kill people on European soil,” he said. He and his RUSI team have been tracking North Korean arms deliveries to Russia since Mr Kim met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Russia in September last year to finalize a so-called arms deal.

Using satellite imagery, they were able to observe four Russian cargo ships traveling back and forth between North Korea and a Russian military port, loaded with hundreds of containers at a time.

In total, RUSI estimates that 7,000 containers were shipped, with more than a million casings of Grad munitions and rockets, the type that can be fired in bursts from trucks.

Its estimates are supported by US, British and South Korean intelligence, although Russia and North Korea have denied the existence of such exchanges.

“These shells and rockets are among the most sought after in the world today and allow Russia to continue attacking Ukrainian cities at a time when the United States and Europe are hesitant about the weapons to supply,” underlines Mr. Byrne.

Cheap missiles

But it’s the arrival of ballistic missiles on the battlefield that most worries Byrne and his colleagues, because of what they reveal about North Korea’s weapons program.

Since the 1980s, North Korea has sold its weapons abroad, mainly to countries in North Africa and the Middle East, including Libya, Syria and Iran. These are often old Soviet-type missiles which have a bad reputation.

There is evidence that Hamas fighters likely used old rocket-propelled grenades from Pyongyang in their October 7 attack.

But the missile fired on January 2 that Kimachuk dismantled was apparently Pyongyang’s most sophisticated short-range missile, the Hwasong 11, capable of traveling up to 700 kilometers.

Although the Ukrainians have downplayed the missile’s accuracy, Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on North Korean weapons and nonproliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said it does not appear to be much more capable than the missiles. Russians.

Photo credit, Getty Images

Image caption, Kimachuk claims Russia fired dozens of North Korean missiles into its territory.

The advantage of these missiles is that they are extremely cheap, says Mr. Lewis. This means one can buy more and shoot more, in the hopes of collapsing air defenses, which is exactly what the Russians appear to be doing.

The question therefore arises as to how many of these missiles the North Koreans can produce.

The South Korean government recently found that North Korea had shipped 6,700 containers of munitions to Russia. He estimates that Pyongyang’s arms factories were operating at full capacity and Lewis, who has studied these factories by satellite, estimates that they can produce around 100 per year.

Strong networks

Still stunned by their discovery, Mr. Spleeters and his team are trying to understand how this is possible, given that the companies are prohibited from selling parts to North Korea.

Most of the computer chips that are an integral part of modern weapons, guiding them through the air to their target, are the same ones used in our phones, washing machines and cars, Spleeters says.

They are sold all over the world in staggering quantities. Manufacturers ship billions of them to distributors, who sell them by the millions, meaning they often have no idea where their products are going.

Still, Mr. Byrne was frustrated to learn that many of the missile’s components came from the West. This shows that North Korea’s supply networks are stronger and more efficient than he himself, who researches these networks, thought.

In his experience, overseas-based North Koreans set up fake companies in Hong Kong or other Central Asian countries to purchase goods using essentially stolen money.

They then ship the goods to North Korea, usually across the Chinese border. If a fake company is discovered and sanctioned, another quickly appears in its place.

Photo credit, Getty Images

Image caption, By purchasing weapons from Pyongyang, Moscow is violating the very sanctions it passed as a member of the United Nations Security Council.

Sanctions have long been seen as an imperfect tool to combat these networks, but to have any chance of working, they must be regularly updated and enforced. Both Russia and China have refused to impose new sanctions on North Korea since 2017.

By purchasing weapons from Pyongyang, Moscow is violating the very sanctions it passed as a member of the UN Security Council. Then, earlier this year, she effectively dismantled a U.N. panel of experts monitoring sanctions violations, presumably to avoid scrutiny.

“We are seeing UN sanctions against North Korea crumble in real time, which gives Pyongyang a lot of room to maneuver,” says Mr. Byrne.

All of this has implications that go far beyond the war in Ukraine.

“The real winners are the North Koreans,” says Mr. Byrne. “They helped the Russians significantly, which gave them a lot of influence.”

In March, RUSI documented the shipment of large quantities of oil from Russia to North Korea, while railcars filled with what is believed to be rice and flour were seen crossing the land border between the two countries.

The deal, estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, will boost not only Pyongyang’s economy, but also its military.

Russia could also provide the North with the raw materials needed to manufacture its missiles, or even equipment for its army.

Pyongyang: a major supplier of missiles?

Even more worrying, the war offers North Korea a showcase for the rest of the world.

Now that Pyongyang is mass-producing these weapons, it will want to sell them to other countries, and if the missiles are good enough for Russia, they will be good enough for others, Mr. Lewis says, especially since the Russians are setting the example that it is okay to violate sanctions.

Mr. Lewis predicts that in the future, North Korea will become a major supplier of missiles to the countries of the China-Russia-Iran bloc. Following Iran’s attack on Israel this month, the United States said it was “extremely concerned” that North Korea might collaborate with Iran on its nuclear weapons programs. nuclear and ballistic weapons.

“I see a lot of dark faces when we talk about this problem,” comments Mr. Spleeters. “But the good news is that now that we know how dependent North Korea is on foreign technology, we can do something.

The analyst is optimistic that by working with manufacturers it will be possible to cut off North Korea’s supply chains. His team has already successfully identified and shut down an illicit network before it could make a vital sale.

But Mr. Lewis is not convinced. “We can make it more difficult, more inconvenient, maybe increase the costs, but none of that will stop North Korea from making these weapons,” he says, adding that the West will not ultimately failed to contain the rogue state.

Today, its missiles are not only a Source of prestige and political power, but they also bring in huge sums of money, Mr. Lewis says. So why would Kim Jong-un abandon them now?



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