The White House has accused North Korea of arming the Kremlin-linked private military company Wagner Group, which has deployed its mercenaries in Ukraine as part of Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.
John Kirby, spokesperson for the US National Security Council, said the North Korean deliveries, which have included rockets and missiles, began in November but have not had a significant effect on the course of the war.
“Because of our sanctions and export controls, Wagner is searching around the world for arms suppliers to support its military operations in Ukraine,” he said. “We can confirm that North Korea has completed an initial arms delivery to Wagner, which paid for that equipment.”
Wagner, which is headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime associate of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has become an increasingly high-profile part of the Russian offensive.
Prigozhin, who is often referred to as Putin’s “chef” because the two men became close when Prigozhin ran a catering company, has emerged as a leading domestic critic of how the Russian defence ministry has run the war, leading analysts to argue he is attempting to increase his influence over strategy.
The Biden administration has attempted to crack down on the group and on Wednesday said it would face additional export curbs to prevent it from accessing equipment made with US technologies. Wagner was previously added to a US trade blacklist in 2017.
Kirby said the US would impose additional sanctions against the group in the coming weeks.
In September, declassified US intelligence claimed that the Kremlin was purchasing “millions of rockets and artillery shells” from North Korea as western sanctions begin to choke Moscow’s normal supplies.
Ties between Moscow and Pyongyang have warmed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
North Korea was quick to express its support for the invasion, blaming the war on US “hegemonic policy” and “high-handedness”. Moscow repaid the favour by echoing Pyongyang’s denunciation of large-scale military exercises conducted by the US and South Korea in August.
While the US does not assess that the Wagner deliveries will change the battlefield dynamics in Ukraine, it is “concerned that North Korea is planning to deliver more military equipment,” Kirby said. The deliveries were first reported by Reuters.
Kirby said Prigozhin was spending $100mn per month on the group and was having trouble finding recruits. Wagner officials including Prigozhin have been travelling to prisons and recruiting convicts, even some with serious medical conditions, Kirby added.
The US estimates that Wagner has about 50,000 personnel deployed to Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts, with fighters playing a major role in Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that has seen some of the most intense recent fighting.
The group was leading combat operations in other parts of the Donbas, with Russian military officials subordinate to Wagner’s command in some cases, said Kirby.
About 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in the fighting in recent weeks, 90% of whom are convicts. “He’s literally throwing bodies into the meat grinder there in Bakhmut,” said Kirby.
Additional reporting by Christian Davies in London