White House: North Korea Is Arming Russia in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un pose for pho
Yuri Kadobnov/Pool Photo via AP

At a press briefing on Friday, White House National Security Council (NSC) communications director John Kirby accused North Korea of supplying ammunition to invading Russian forces in Ukraine.

Kirby claimed the munitions were passed to Russia’s infamous Wagner Group, a mercenary organization led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Kirby estimated the Wagner Group has about 50,000 personnel in Ukraine at present, the majority of them prison convicts recruited by Wagner, to the evident displeasure of Russian officials.

“Wagner is becoming a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries. Publicly, Prigozhin and his fighters have criticized Russian generals and defense officials for their performance on the battlefield,” he said.

The Associated Press

Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, gestures on the sidelines of a summit meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Konstantin palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia, on Aug. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

“As we have said publicly, North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner toward the end of last year,” Kirby said. He supported his accusations with satellite photos of Russian railroad cars that traveled to North Korea in November and returned loaded with shipping containers.


White House National Security spokesman John Kirby displays intelligence photographs of what the U.S. says is a Russian train in North Korea picking up military supplies for the private Wagner military group fighting in Ukraine. (AFP)

“We obviously condemn North Korea’s actions, and we urge North Korea to cease these deliveries to Wagner immediately. And we are going further, by taking action against Wagner itself,” he said.

Kirby announced that the U.S. Treasury Department has designated the Wagner Group as a “significant Transnational Criminal Organization,” and will soon impose sanctions against “Wagner and its support network across multiple continents.”


A man walks past a television screen showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul on December 31, 2022, after North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles according to South Korea’s military (AFP)

“Our message to any company that is considering providing support to Wagner is simply this: Wagner is a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses, and we will work relentlessly to identify, disrupt, expose, and target those who are assisting Wagner,” he said.

As for North Korea, Kirby noted its arms shipments to Russia “are in direct violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.” He said the U.S. has filed a complaint with the U.N. Security Council, which will decide if additional sanctions against North Korea are warranted.

In response to a reporter’s question, Kirby admitted that some countries are willing to undermine U.N. and U.S. sanctions by doing business with Russia and North Korea, notably including China, but he expressed confidence that sanctions would continue to damage the shaky North Korean economy.

While Kirby said there were signs of “mounting tensions” between the Wagner Group and the Russian military, Prigozhin described himself as wholly committed to the war in Ukraine in a strange interview over the weekend in which he compared himself to the fabled monk Rasputin.

“I am not very familiar with the history of Rasputin, but as far as I know, an important quality of Rasputin is that he staunched the blood flow of the young prince with incantations,” Prigozhin said.

“Unfortunately, I do not staunch blood flow. I bleed the enemies of our motherland. And not by incantations, but by direct contact with them,” he said.

If Prigozhin was more familiar with the history of Rasputin, he might reflect at greater length on the mad monk’s unpleasant demise in 1916 at the hands of tsarist nobles who disliked him roughly as much as Russian military officials reportedly dislike Prigozhin and his methods.

Sky News reported last week that the Wagner Group’s tidy cemetery near Krasondar in southern Russia is filling up quickly with losses from Ukraine. Undeterred by these losses, Prigozhin boasted recently that incompetent and disloyal Russian generals could expect to face the “Wagner sledgehammer” – an ominous reference to how the group reportedly executes deserters.

Sky News noted there are rumors, denied by the Kremlin, that Putin replaced the top commander of his operations in Ukraine two weeks ago to either placate Prigozhin, or to warn him that more serious battlefield commanders who would not tolerate Wagner’s antics were taking over.


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