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Russia seeking an arms for food deal with North Korea, WH says

By Sarah May
|
March 31, 2023

The Biden administration revealed this week that it has uncovered new proof that Russia is seeking to enter into an arms-for-food agreement with North Korea as a means to secure additional weaponry for the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, as the Associated Press reports.

The news came during a Thursday press conference during which National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby explained the contours of the plan the White House believes is being put in place.

Arms-for-food

Kirby began his discussion of the putative deal between Moscow and Pyongyang by declaring, as Fox News notes, “We remain concerned that North Korea will provide further support to Russia's military operations against Ukraine.”

“As part of this proposed deal, Russia would receive over two dozen kinds of weapons and munitions from Korea,” Kirby continued. “We also understand that Russia is seeking to send a delegation to North Korea and that Russia is offering North Korea food in exchange for munitions.”

Pledging to keep a close eye on developments in this realm, Kirby added, “Any arms deal between North Korea and Russia would directly violate a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions. We've taken note of North Korea's recent statements that they will not provide or sell arms to Russia, and we are continuing to monitor this closely.”

“We are going to continue to identify, expose and counter Russian attempts to acquire military equipment from North Korea or from any other state that is prepared to support its war in Ukraine,” Kirby concluded.

Sanctions imposed

It was also on Thursday that the administration announced a decision to impose sanctions on a Slovakian man accused of brokering the sale of North Korean weaponry to Russia, according to the Daily Mail.

The man in question, Ashot Mkrtychev, is now the subject of sanctions from the Treasury Department for purportedly “having attempted to, directly or indirectly, import, export, or re-export to, into, or from the DPRK any arms or related materiel.”

Treasury officials said that between late last year and early this year, Mkrtychev engaged with officials in North Korea in an attempt to secure weapons and munitions on Russia's behalf in exchange for commodities and commercial aircraft that would be sent to the government in Pyongyang.

A statement issued by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen declared, “Russia has lost over 9,000 pieces of heavy military equipment since the start of the war, and thanks in part to multilateral sanctions and export controls, Putin has become increasingly desperate to replace them. Schemes like the arms deal pursued by this individual show that Putin is turning to suppliers of last resort like Iran and the DPRK.”

Rogue suppliers scrutinized

As the AP noted, the Biden administration has already declassified materials reported to show that Iran provided attack drones to Putin last year, bolstering the notion that the Kremlin is increasingly looking to boost its weaponry stocks with the help of international pariah states.

The AP further noted that, according to administration representations, Russia's Wagner Group – a private supplier of fighting forces for the Ukraine conflict – has also received arms deliveries from North Korea.

Such transfers have been the subject of Treasury Department sanctions, as CNBC noted late last year, as have transfers between Tehran and Putin's military itself.

“Russia has received dozens of these [unmanned aerial vehicles] so far. And will likely continue to receive additional shipments in the future,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at the time.

North Korea's need

Though Russia's motivation for aligning with other nations to fortify weapons stocks as the conflict in Ukraine continues into its second year is obvious, North Korea's incentive for participating in the aforementioned deal is similarly urgent in nature.

As the BBC reports, North Korea remains one of the poorest nations on the globe, and it is currently in the grips of a critical food crisis stemming from poor weather conditions, stringent border controls, and the cumulative impact of international sanctions on its totalitarian government.

The outlet indicated that satellite imagery suggests that 2022 saw North Korean food production drop by 180,000 tons from its 2021 level, underscoring the severity of the shortages.

Emblematic of the struggles faced by rank-and-file North Koreans was the frustration many felt when images of dictator Kim Jong Un's daughter recently emerged in the media. Noting the juxtaposition of her well-fed visage with the starving countenances of millions of others in that country, one observer said, “She must be eating so well, her face is so white and plump like the moon,” whereas “most people aren't able to eat properly, so their cheekbones stick out from their faces....”