What’s on Pyongyang’s Weapons Shopping List in Moscow?

Washington — Moscow has a range of military technologies that it could offer Pyongyang in exchange for munitions to sustain its war in Ukraine, with advanced missile technologies high on the list, analysts say.

North Korea has been providing munitions to Russia since its leader, Kim Jong Un, visited Russia last September and met with President Vladimir Putin.

Since September, Pyongyang has shipped about 6,700 containers of munitions to Russia, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Wonshik said at a press briefing on February 26. He said the containers could carry more than 3 million 152 mm artillery shells or 500,000 122 mm rounds.

Those munitions are making a difference on the battlefield. The Security Service of Ukraine said last month that North Korean ballistic missiles have been killing and injuring civilians since December.

Shin said that North Korea has cranked up its hundreds of munitions factories to operate “at full capacity,” and that in return, Moscow is providing Pyongyang with raw materials and parts to manufacture weapons, in addition to food.

He also said Moscow is expected to transfer more military technology, which could embolden North Korea to escalate threats in the region.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency said in November that Russia was the most likely source of technology that Pyongyang needed to launch its Malligyong-1 satellite into orbit the same month.

But the question remains as to what kind of weapons technology is Russia willing to send to North Korea that would increase the threat it poses to South Korea and the United States?

Analysts say Russia could provide technologies that would refine Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

Michael O’Hanlon, director of research and foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told VOA on Friday via email that Moscow most likely would provide missile technology to North Korea, “but nuclear weapons design information can’t be ruled out.”

What would concern South Korea the most would be short-range ballistic missile technology, including guidance systems, according to Bruce Bechtol, a former intelligence officer at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency who is now a political science professor at Angelo University in Texas.

“The North Koreans may be looking for technology that will help those missiles evade ballistic missile defenses as they’re attacking the South,” Bechtol said Monday during a phone interview with VOA. “The Russians do have that technology, and this is something that we must pay attention to.”

Moscow’s transfer of guidance and reentry capabilities of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, would be the “most dangerous to the American homeland, according to David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy.

“Advanced technology and capabilities to support an ICBM program” probably is “what North Korea wants the most,” Maxwell told VOA during a telephone interview on Monday.

Analysts say Russia could also provide technologies that could enhance the development of satellite cameras, submarines, advanced fighter jets, air defense capabilities and tanks.

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, told VOA in a telephone interview this week that Russia has technology that would allow North Korea to pack greater explosive power into a small warhead, but “may be reluctant to give North Korea sophisticated miniaturization technology.”

Bennett said North Korea may have a nuclear warhead with 10 kilotons yield, but it probably does not have advanced miniaturization technology that could pack 350 kilotons of explosive power into a warhead like that of a U.S. Minuteman III ICBM.

Analysts say regardless of what weapons technology Russia transfers, it would be difficult to detect.

Bennett pointed out that Russian scientists seemed to have flown from Moscow to Pyongyang on a Russia military plane in September, two months before North Korea launched a spy satellite.

It could be difficult to discern if Russians spotted in Pyongyang are military experts now that North Korea has opened up its border to Russian tourists, said Bechtol.

Russian tourists visited North Korea in February for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic.

A North Korean IT delegation returned home on Friday after attending the Eurasia IT forum in Moscow, and a delegation on the North Korea-Russia joint committee on fisheries returned home on February 29 from Russia, according to KCNA, the state news agency of North Korea.

Additionally, Kim received a Russian-made vehicle from Putin on February 18, according to KCNA. Russian state media Tass on February 19 did not confirm the make or model, saying only that Kim examined an Aurus luxury car during his visit.

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