North Korea’s foreign ministry has denounced as “absurd” a United States report that the Russian mercenary force, Wagner Group, had received a shipment of North Korean rockets and missiles to support Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on Thursday that Pyongyang had sent an initial cache of weapons to the Wagner Group, which is searching worldwide for arms manufacturers who can supply its military operations in Ukraine.
“We can confirm that North Korea has completed an initial arms delivery to Wagner, which paid for that equipment. Last month, North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner,” Kirby told reporters.
The export of North Korean weapons is banned under United Nations Security Council resolutions imposed on the country due to its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
The US estimates Wagner has 50,000 personnel deployed in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts recruited from Russian prisons, Kirby said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has increasingly turned to Wagner for help in Ukraine, where Russian forces have stumbled, he said.
Wagner’s owner Yevgeny Prigozhin – who denied the US assertion as “gossip and speculation” on Thursday – is estimated to be spending more than $100m per month to fund his mercenaries’ operations in Ukraine, Kirby added.
The Wagner Group – staffed by veterans of the Russian armed forces and prisoners released if they agree to fight in Ukraine – has operated in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali, among other countries, and has been accused of committing human rights abuses and other atrocities.
Reacting to a media report on the alleged shipment of munitions to Wagner, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson said the news was “false” and the “most absurd red herring, which is not worth any comment or interpretation”.
“The DPRK remains unchanged in its principled stand on the issue of ‘arms transaction’ between the DPRK and Russia which has never happened,” the spokesperson said, according to a statement carried in the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
The US, the North Korean official added, was itself “bringing bloodshed and destruction to Ukraine by providing it with various kinds of lethal weapons”.
DPRK are the initials of North Korea’s official name – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The United Kingdom’s UN ambassador, Barbara Woodward, said in a tweet on Friday that London agreed with Washington’s assessment that “Russia has received weapons from North Korea, in violation of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions”.
The UK agrees with the US assessment.
Russia has received weapons from North Korea, in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions.
Russian mercenary group Wagner, known for its use of torture and systematic human rights abuses, is in Ukraine and paid for the weapons. https://t.co/Wg9Kw0ODdx
— Ambassador Barbara Woodward (@BWoodward_UN) December 22, 2022
“The fact that President Putin is turning to North Korea for help is a sign of Russia’s desperation and isolation,” the UK’s foreign minister, James Cleverly, said in a statement.
“We will work with our partners to ensure that North Korea pays a high price for supporting Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine.”
In November, after the White House said Pyongyang had covertly supplied Russia with a “significant” number of artillery shells, North Korea said it had never had arms dealings with Russia and had no plans to do so.
Washington has said Russia has also turned to Iran to provide drones to use against Ukraine and the US has expressed concern Moscow may seek to acquire additional advanced conventional weapons from Iran.
‘Gossip and Speculation’
Wagner chief Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin, said in a statement: “Everyone knows that North Korea has not been supplying any weapons to Russia for a long time. And no such efforts have even been made.”
“Therefore, the supply of weapons from North Korea is nothing but gossip and speculation.”
Kirby said Prigozhin had a habit of making statements based on conjecture.
The US assessment is that the amount of material delivered by North Korea will not change the battlefield dynamics but more military equipment is expected to be delivered by Pyongyang.
US intelligence indicates Wagner mercenaries have played a leading role in the battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut and suffered heavy casualties, with about 1,000 Wagner employees killed in recent weeks, Kirby said.
“It seems as though Mr. Prigozhin is willing to just throw Russian bodies into the meat grinder in Bakhmut,” he said.
Kirby also said Prigozhin’s influence is expanding inside Russia and that his group’s independence from Moscow’s defense ministry has increased since the invasion of Ukraine in February. In some instances, Russian military officials in Ukraine were subordinate to Wagner forces, he said.
Kirby said Prigozhin appeared more interested in “influence peddling at the Kremlin” than protecting his troops.
“For him, it’s all about how good he looks to Mr. Putin, and how well he’s regarded at the Kremlin,” he said.
US President Joe Biden’s administration on Wednesday unveiled new curbs on technology exports to the Wagner Group. More sanctions are coming in the weeks ahead against the company and its support group in countries around the world, Kirby said.