Pyongyang: A major missile supplier?

       In January 2024, a young Ukrainian weapons inspector, Krystyna Kimachuk, got word 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 get her hands on it. Within a week, she had the mangled debris splayed out in front of her at a secure location in the capital Kyiv.

       She began taking it apart and photographing every piece, including the screws and computer chips smaller than her fingernails. She could tell almost immediately this was not a Russian missile, but her challenge was to prove its origin.

       Buried amidst the mess of metal and sprouting wires, Ms Kimachuk spotted a tiny character from the Korean alphabet. Then she came across a more telling detail. The number 112 had been stamped onto parts of the shell. This corresponds to the year 2023 in the North Korean calendar. She realised she was looking at the first piece of hard evidence that North Korean weapons were being used to attack her country.

       “We’d heard they had delivered some weapons to Russia, but I could see it, touch it, investigate it, in a way no-one had been able to do before. This was very exciting”, she explained. Since then, the Ukrainian military says dozens of North Korean missiles have been fired by Russia into its territory. They have killed at least 24 people and injured more than 70. But it wasn’t until after Krystyna had finished photographing the wreckage of the missile, and her team analysed its hundreds of components, that the most jaw-dropping revelation came. It was bursting with the latest foreign technology.

       Most of the electronic parts had been manufactured in the U.S. and Europe over the past few years. There was even a U.S. computer chip made as recently as March 2023. This meant that North Korea had illicitly procured vital weapons components, snuck them into the country, assembled the missile, and shipped it to Russia in secret, where it had then been transported to the frontline and fired at Ukraine – all in a matter of months.

       Since the 1980s North Korea has sold its weapons abroad, largely to countries in the North Africa and the Middle East, including Libya, Syria and Iran. They have tended to be old, Soviet-style missiles with a poor reputation: There is evidence, for example, that Hamas fighters likely used some of Pyongyang’s old rocket-propelled grenades in their attack on the 7th of  October. But the missile fired on 2 January, that Ms Kimachuk took apart, was seemingly Pyongyang’s most sophisticated short-range missile – the Hwasong 11 – capable of travelling up to 700km (435 miles).

       This then raises the question of how many of these missiles the North Koreans can produce. The South Korean government recently observed North Korea has sent 6,700 containers of munitions to Russia, which says that Pyongyang’s weapons factories are operating flat out.

       Many of the computer chips that are integral to modern weapons are the same chips that are used to power our phones, washing machines and cars. These are sold all over the world in staggering numbers. Manufacturers sell to distributors in their billions, who sell them on in their millions, meaning they often have no idea where their products end up.

       The fact many components in the North Korean missile that the Russians launched into Ukraine came from the West proved that North Korea’s procurement networks are more robust and effective than anyone realized. It seems that North Koreans based overseas set up fake companies in Hong Kong or other central Asian countries to buy the items using predominantly stolen cash. They then send the products onto North Korea, usually over its border with China. If a fake company is discovered and sanctioned, another will quickly pop up in its place. It is a real threat that the West needs to shut down as quickly as possible before Pyongyang becomes a major arms producer for the world.

       Sanctions have long been considered an imperfect tool to combat these networks, but to have any hope of working they need to be regularly updated and enforced. However, both Russia and China have refused to impose any new sanctions on North Korea since 2017.

       By buying Pyongyang’s weapons, Moscow is now violating the very sanctions it once voted for as a member of the UN Security Council. Earlier this year Russia went a step further when they effectively disbanded a UN panel that monitored sanctions’ breaches…likely to avoid scrutiny.

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

       Not only are these missiles a source of prestige and political power, but they are also generating vast amounts of money, so why would Kim Jong Un ever give them up now?

       The only solution may well be a series of major “accidents” at the factories inside North Korea that are building these weapons! Drastic and dangerous that maybe, but the West has brought it on itself by being reticent about directly confronting Kim Jong Un for far too long.

About The Author

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For security, use of hCaptcha is required which is subject to their Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

I agree to these terms.

Scroll to Top