Russia’s defence minister is in North Korea to secure weapons, Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state has said.
Sergei Shoigu was this week given a personal tour of Pyongyang’s weaponry by Kim Jong-un in the first trip by Moscow’s top defence official since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The rare visit to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Korean war armistice saw Mr Shoigu pledge to boost military ties, as he praised the North Korean military as the “most powerful” in the world.
In reference to Mr Shoigu’s visit, Mr Blinken said: “I strongly doubt he’s there on holiday,” adding, “we’re seeing Russia desperately looking for support, for weapons, wherever it can find them to continue to prosecute its aggression against Ukraine.”
“We see that in North Korea, we see that as well with Iran, which has provided many drones to Russia that it’s using to destroy civilian infrastructure and kill civilians in Ukraine.”
North Korean state media described the meeting as a “friendly talk” with photos showing Kim walking the Russian defence minister through a vast exhibition space showcasing the North’s nuclear missiles – some capable of reaching the US.
The North Korean leader appeared to have decked out his residence with giant photos of Vladimir Putin ahead of the Russian defence delegation’s arrival, signalling deeper ties between the two countries as they each face off with the United States.
Mr Shoigu’s appearance in Pyongyang signals that Russia, a UN Security Council member, has dropped any pretence of trying to keep North Korea and its nuclear weapons programme in check.
“The symbolism of the Russian defence minister touring a room packed with nuclear-capable missiles built in North Korea is stark and grim,” said Ankit Panda, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Russia, a historic ally of Pyongyang, is one of very few countries that maintains friendly relations with the North, while authoritarian leader, Kim, has offered unflinching support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
It comes as Ukrainian soldiers were observed using North Korean rockets that they claim were seized by a “friendly” country before being delivered to Ukraine, the Financial Times reported.
It is believed to be the first report showing the use of Pyongyang’s arms by Ukraine against Russian forces.
The North Korean weapons were shown by Ukrainian troops operating Soviet-era Grad multiple-launch rocket systems near the destroyed eastern city of Bakhmut.
Ukraine’s defence ministry suggested the arms were captured from the Russians.
“We capture their tanks, we capture their equipment and it is very possible that this is also the result of the Ukrainian army successfully conducting a military operation,” said Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister.
“Russia has been shopping around for different types of munitions in all kinds of tyrannies, including North Korea and Iran,” he added.
According to a US intelligence report last year, Russia has been buying artillery shells and rockets from North Korea.
Analysts suggest that this may have been in exchange for grain, oil and medical shipments that enable Kim to soften the impact of US-led sanctions against his nuclear weapons programme.
North Korea is banned from developing weapons that use ballistic missile technology by United Nations Security Council resolutions that have previously been backed by all permanent members, including Russia and China.
However, Mr Shoigu’s visit to Pyongyang indicates Russia is playing little heed to the latest appeals from the US state department for Moscow and Beijing to use their influence with Kim to play a constructive role in managing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.