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Comrades-in-missiles. How the West can counter North Korean arms supplies to Russia

Russia is purchasing ballistic missiles from North Korea in violation of the UN Security Council arms embargo, and the West must respond in kind by authorizing Ukraine to use long-range weapons to strike targets inside Russia, independent analyst Colby Badhwar argues. Russia’s use of North Korean missiles in Ukraine was exposed by the Ukrainian Prosecutor General in the wake of the New Year attacks. However, it's not despair that’s pushing the Kremlin to buy arms from Pyongyang, Badhwar says, but the desire to diversify its weapons sources. As for North Korea, they are only too happy to use Ukraine as a test site.


In the final days of 2023, Russia unleashed the largest air attack on Ukraine since the opening days of the full-scale invasion. Their goal: to destroy Ukrainian industry and infrastructure and to plunge the country into cold and darkness. To further their campaign of terroristic strikes, Vladimir Putin has sought new weapons from North Korea. In September 2023, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a rare visit outside his country to meet Putin in Russia’s Far East, where they discussed potential arms deals. In October the White House released declassified intelligence that deals had been realized, with over 1000 containers of ammunition and equipment being shipped to Russia. Open-source intelligence analysis has come to similar conclusions. On Nov. 1, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service assessed that 1 million artillery shells had been supplied to Russia. A week later, the South Korean Armed Forces disclosed in a background briefing to local media that North Korea was suspected of providing Russia with short-range ballistic missiles as well.

On Jan. 4, the White House confirmed that those suspicions were correct. National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby disclosed that North Korea had provided Russia with several dozen ballistic missiles, along with their associated Transporter Erector Launcher vehicles. Though he did not specifically identify which missiles had been provided, a graphic he supplied included pictures of both a KN-23 and a KN-24.

A KN-23 missile
A KN-23 missile

The KN-23 (Hwasong-11A) resembles the Russian 9M723 Iskander in appearance, although there are some visible differences in the construction. It is unclear whether it was produced with any technical assistance from Russia. The KN-24 (Hwasong-11B) resembles an American ATACMS, though with different dimensions. Kirby explained that the first identified launch occurred on Dec. 30, with at least one missile being fired from the Voronezh area. Thankfully it landed in an open field. On Jan. 2, several more missiles were fired, and although the White House could not confirm the targets at the time, pictures soon emerged on social media of missile body debris in Kharkiv. Dr. Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute and independent munitions analyst John Ridge have both concluded that the missile was very likely a Hwasong-11.

Missile debris in the Kharkiv Region, Ukraine
Missile debris in the Kharkiv Region, Ukraine

The arrival of these missiles has prompted questions about the motivations behind this transaction. Kirby started his briefing by claiming that sanctions and export controls have forced Russia to look abroad for military equipment. However, an investigation by the team here at The Insider has found that Russia has been able to circumvent these sanctions via China to acquire the necessary technology to produce missiles.

Ukrainian Military Intelligence assessed in August of last year that Russian missile production was higher than it had been in 2022. Russia’s acquisition of North Korean weapons should therefore not be viewed as an act of desperation, but rather as a prudent diversification of supply. If the North Koreans are willing to sell, why would Russia not bolster their stockpiles further?

Russia’s acquisition of North Korean weapons is not an act of desperation but a prudent diversification of supply

On the question of what the North Koreans want in return, Kirby had a much more realistic assessment. Pyongyang’s shopping list included ‘fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles, ballistic missile production equipment or materials, and other advanced technologies.” This tracks with previous reports of what they were looking to acquire from Russia. The possibility that Russia could provide them with assistance to increase the production of their own missiles, and then seek to buy those missiles, is cause for concern. South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik raised the possibility that Russia could assist North Korea with their spy satellites, telling Yonhap in an interview that «North Korea's spy satellite launched in November is considered rudimentary. If Russia continues to offer technological assistance, the satellite's capability is expected to improve.» He also speculated that a recent visit by Kim Jong Un to inspect Hwasong-11D ballistic missile systems could indicate that they may be sold to Russia as well.

North Korea’s ballistic missiles don’t offer any specific qualitative advantage over what Russia already has at their disposal. However, the adage that quantity has a quality all its own is very much applicable here. The main threat posed by ballistic missiles is that Ukraine has a very limited number of systems that can intercept them. 2 S-300V battalions, 1 SAMP-T battery and 3 Patriot batteries constitute Ukraine’s ballistic missile defense system. SAMP-T is likely unable to intercept KN-23 as well, and S-300V has a finite supply of interceptor missiles. The risk to Ukraine is that if Russia’s inventory of ballistic missiles is further bolstered, they could overwhelm Ukraine’s Patriots with weight of numbers. The “several dozen” missiles which the United States has identified so far isn’t enough to cause too much concern, but if Russia starts receiving a sustained supply, then the calculus changes. If the KN-24 and Hwasong-11D make appearances on the battlefield, that would be indicative that this was not an isolated, one-time sale, but a long-term effort by Russia to increase its long-range strike capabilities.

If Russia’s inventory of ballistic missiles is further bolstered, they could overwhelm Ukraine’s Patriots with weight of numbers

Russia isn’t just looking to North Korea for new armaments either. John Kirby also disclosed in his briefing that Russian negotiations to acquire ballistic missiles from Iran were “actively advancing”, noting that Russian Defense Minister Shoigu traveled to Iran in September 2023 and was shown numerous missiles by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. A second Russian delegation was provided with a demonstration in December, which resulted in the assessment that “Russia intends to purchase missile systems from Iran.” Were Russia to procure Iranian ballistic missiles as well, the combined supply of all 3 countries would present a serious problem for Ukraine.

Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Sergei Shoigu, Russia's Minister of Defense, in Tehran. Sep. 19, 2023
Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Sergei Shoigu, Russia's Minister of Defense, in Tehran. Sep. 19, 2023
RIA Novosti/Ministry of Defense press service/Vadim Savitsky

While any sales between North Korea and Russia are blatantly illegal, UN Security Council (UNSC) arms control sanctions on Iran expired last October, leaving little immediate recourse against them in that venue. Kirby pledged that the US would raise the topic of the deal with North Korea at the UNSC and impose additional unilateral sanctions as well. Russia of course, despite having voted for arms embargoes on North Korea at the UNSC, can veto any sanctions brought against either of them. Additional sanctions from the United States will likely have little impact, given how poorly current sanctions are being enforced.

Despite having voted for arms embargoes on North Korea at the UNSC, Russia can veto any sanctions brought against either of them

The North Koreans appear completely undeterred as well, launching a large barrage of artillery into the sea near the border with South Korea. These actions have raised considerable alarm in South Korea, which is obviously at great risk from further North Korean weapons development. Hwang Joon-kook, South Korea’s Ambassador to the United Nations stated, “By exporting missiles to Russia, [North Korea] uses Ukraine as the test site of its nuclear-capable missiles,” adding that “From the ROK standpoint, it amounts to a simulated attack,” from which North Korea gains “valuable technical and military insights”. In his announcement, Kirby raised the same concern, saying that “We expect Russia and North Korea to learn from these launches”. He concluded his briefing by noting that “the most effective response to Russia’s horrific violence against the Ukrainian people is to continue to provide Ukraine with vital air defense capabilities and other types of military equipment.”

What specific “military equipment” Kirby had in mind, if any, was not elaborated on, but what Ukraine needs is no secret. South Korea has so far been unwilling to directly supply them with weapons or ammunition, but that needs to change. Seoul providing military aid to Ukraine would be a significant consequence for Russia and would also benefit South Korea greatly. There is tremendous value in testing your military equipment in real combat conditions. Not only does it allow you to evaluate its effectiveness for your own benefit, but it demonstrates it to potential export customers. Systems like NASAMS, IRIS-T and HIMARS are all in high demand thanks to their impressive performance on the battlefield. South Korea’s arms industry is already doing good business, but it has the potential to do much more if their systems could be advertised as combat proven. South Korea has their own ballistic missiles, the KTSSM, and their own air defense systems, the KM-SAM, which could be provided to Ukraine. They also have armored personnel carriers in storage, including the M113, which are very popular with Ukrainian troops. Most importantly, South Korea has large stocks of 155mm ammunition, and can produce it as well.

Convincing South Korea to abandon its current policy of not providing lethal military equipment to Ukraine needs to be a top priority for the United States. Allowing North Korea’s arms deals with Russia to go unanswered only encourages the two rogue states to cooperate further. Both of them have conclusively proven that they only respond to action, not appeasement. The same can be said of Iran as well. Failure to act now only encourages Russia to proceed with the acquisition of Iranian ballistic missiles.

Real costs need to be imposed upon Russia, and there is no greater cost than the destruction of their Armed Forces. In this endeavor, the United States needs to lead by example.

Allowing North Korea's arms deals with Russia to go unanswered only encourages the two rogue states to cooperate further

The past two years have shown that when the United States hesitates, its allies do as well, but when they lead, then they will be followed. It took an American pledge to provide Ukraine with main battle tanks before the Germans would agree to do the same. President Biden must assemble and lead a coalition to respond to Russia’s latest escalation. Provision of American long-range missiles, such as 300km M39A1 ATACMS and SLAM-ERs could be joined by German Taurus KEPD 350s and Korean KTSSMs.

Ukraine must also be authorized to utilize those missiles to strike back at the Russian military on Russian territory. If Russia is going to launch North Korean ballistic missiles at Ukrainian cities from Voronezh, then they should not be safe from return fire. This asymmetry must change if Ukraine is to be successful on the battlefield. Russia has crafted its logistical system around their understanding that Ukraine has very limited long-range strike options and can only use domestically produced ones to strike Russian territory. It was bad enough that Russia’s own missiles were safe behind this imaginary shield, but if they are going to acquire North Korean ballistic missiles by flouting a UNSC-imposed arms embargo that Moscow itself voted in support of three times, then the United States, South Korea, and all other states backing Ukraine must take collective action in response. This can be a turning point in the war, one in which the inadequacy of Western support for Ukraine is realized and finally redressed. The opportunity can’t be wasted.

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