Satellite photos appear to provide new evidence of cargo ships shuttling between Russia and North Korea in support of an illicit arms trade bolstering Moscow’s war in Ukraine, according to an analysis released on Monday.
The United States has repeatedly accused Russia for over a year of buying weapons from North Korea. The images provided by the Royal United Services Institute in Britain not only back up that accusation, they also provide additional details about shipments from a North Korean port that appear to have been delivered to an Russian ammunition depot about 125 miles from Ukraine’s border.
The analysis says it is impossible to prove what is in the hundreds of containers that were loaded in Rajin harbor, in North Korea’s Rason Special Economic Zone, on to two cargo vessels with ties to Russia’s military.
The White House accused North Korea on Friday of shipping more than 1,000 containers to Russia that were believed to be filled with arms. And American officials have said that the shipments violate United Nations sanctions that ban North Korea from the international trade of arms and military equipment.
After the White House accusations, a senior Russian diplomat, Oleg Burmistrov, was quoted in Russian state media on Sunday denying that Moscow had violated U.N. sanctions. North Korea also has previously denied sending weapons to Russia.
The photos tracked transfers that began in August, a few weeks after Ukraine’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, attended a weapons expo with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in the country’s capital, Pyongyang.
The satellite photos show that dozens of shipping containers of the same size and color that departed Rajin were loaded onto trains at the Russian port of Dunai and arrived at the ammunition depot in Tikhoretsk. Some of the North Korean shipments headed to Dunai were photographed as recently as Oct. 14.
Two cargo vessels — the Angara and the Maria — have made at least five runs between Dunai and Rajin since the August expo, although the analysis noted that both ships at times had turned off their transponders, making them difficult to track.
About the same time, the ammunition depot in Tikhoretsk went from containing a modest number of munitions storage pits to more than 100 that were newly dug as of late September, the satellite photos show.
James Byrne, an author of the new analysis, said Russia was suspected of sending empty containers to the port in Rajin to be filled with weapons. North Korea’s arsenal contains thousands of Soviet-era artillery systems, according to a 2020 study by the RAND Corporation, with the potential to supply a key weapon in Moscow’s war of attrition with Ukraine.
American officials have said that the shipments violate United Nations sanctions that ban North Korea from the international trade of arms and military equipment, and the vessels’ owners could face additional economic penalties, Mr. Byrne said.
The vessels’ owners could face additional economic penalties beyond U.N. sanctions, Mr. Byrne said. Beyond that, “stopping the shipments would clearly be difficult without taking kinetic action, which would be quite escalatory,” he said on Monday.
He added that South Korea and Japan would most likely need to contend with the shipments since they “could have significant strategic consequences for them on the peninsula.”
Sanctions were imposed on the Angara ship and its Russia-based owners, M Leasing and Marine Trans Shipping, last year in connection with the war in Ukraine, and the ship itself was accused years ago of delivering weapons to Syria, South Sudan and Iraq.
The Maria is owned by Azia Shipping Holdings, a company based in Cyprus, and has links to a firm in Moscow that the Royal United Services analysts say oversees logistics for Russia’s Ministry of Defense.
Attempts to reach both companies, in Moscow and Nicosia, were unsuccessful Monday.