An unusual sighting of a Russian military jet in North Korea is stoking concern that Kim Jong Un is selling Russian President Vladimir Putin weapons as ties strengthen between the sanctioned states.
Tracking data from FlightRadar24 shows the Russian Air Force Ilyushin IL-62M flying from Moscow to Pyongyang on July 31 and returning on Aug. 2. Satellite imagery showed the aircraft at Pyongyang’s international airport for about 36 hours, according to NK News, a Seoul-based provider of news on North Korea that also tracks flight activity in the isolated country.
The flight was the first by this type of Russian military VIP plane to North Korea since mid-2019, when Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin traveled to Pyongyang, NK News said. Pyongyang closed its borders in early 2020 due to the pandemic, choking its economy.
Neither Russia nor North Korea have reported on the plane, and it is unclear who was aboard. Russia’s Defense Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The journey by the Russian Air Force jet came just days after Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to Pyongyang on a similar plane to attend a military parade hosted by Kim, who also gave him a tour of a weapons exhibit. It “appears related to following up on Shoigu’s delegation visit and possibly agreements made with Kim,” NK News said, adding that analysts “speculated that the two could have made weapons deals.”
North Korea has been trying to revive its economy, largely by resuming trade with China and evading international sanctions. Russia recently restarted oil shipments to North Korea for the first time since 2020, the United Nations has said, following the earlier resumption of grain exports. It is impossible to know what North Korea is sending in return but both the U.S. government and independent analysts suggested munitions from the stockpiles North Korea has built up amid tensions with Seoul.
For months, U.S. officials have said Moscow is seeking to restock ammunition reserves depleted by its war in Ukraine.
“We have made clear our concerns about cooperation between Russia and North Korea, we have made clear our concerns about North Korea seeking to assist Russia in its aggression in Ukraine,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Monday at a briefing in Washington in response to a question about the plane.
“We will continue to make those concerns clear and we will continue to enforce all of our sanctions,” he said.
The U.S., European Union and others stepped up sanctions against Russia after its February 2022 invasion, including against its leading banks, while also warning nations against materially supporting Moscow’s war effort. The U.S. strategy over Ukraine rests in part on choking off Putin’s economy and hindering its armed forces so any backing from other nations could undercut that.
The most obvious items that Pyongyang has and Moscow needs are artillery shells and rockets that Moscow can use in Soviet-era weaponry pushed into service in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s war machine has been burning through its stocks and is scrambling for supplies with the war now in its second year.
Since North Korea’s economy is so small, an arms deal of about $250 million would be equal to about 1% of its GDP and welcome for a country cut off from the global financial system due to sanctions aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program.
A sale of North Korea’s newest short-range ballistic missiles would constitute a pretty significant escalation, said weapons expert Joost Oilemans. It “would likely be soon identified (if only during transport) and condemned as a gross sanctions violation,” he wrote in an email to Bloomberg News.
Russia has been scouring its arms depots for any functioning armored vehicles, “reactivating some absolutely stunningly old equipment” such as T-54 and T-62 tanks and may need help keeping them running, he said. “North Korea is perhaps the final remaining producer of spare parts for these types as it still maintains an extensive inventory itself,” Oilemans said.
Kim also showed Shoigu new drones but those are unlikely to make their way to a battlefield in Ukraine anytime soon.
“They are just not at a mature stage,” said Yoon Sukjoon, a retired captain in South Korea’s navy who is a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs. North Korea lacks the manufacturing capacity to produce them in significant numbers anyway, he said.
Whatever the exact reason for the mysterious military flight, Russia and North Korea would be aware that they were “fanning the flames of the U.S. government’s accusation that the two countries have a weapons deal,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a regional issues manager at the Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network who was an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency’s Open Source Enterprise for almost two decades.
Lee added that she was concerned the countries “might have discussed deeper-level military cooperation” during the Russian defense minister’s visit. “Clearly, showcasing to the world that they have each other’s back was more important than whatever optics Shoigu’s visit would present,” she said.
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