North Korea had supplied missiles and rockets to the Russian mercenary group Wagner for use in Ukraine, the United States said on Thursday – a charge later denied by Pyongyang.
The White House said the shipment violated UN Security Council resolutions and that it would announce further sanctions on Wagner.
“Wagner is searching around the world for arms suppliers to support its military operations in Ukraine,” White House National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
“We can confirm that North Korea has completed an initial arms delivery to Wagner, which paid for that equipment,” he said.
However, Kirby said, “We assess that the amount of material delivered to Wagner will not change battlefield dynamics in Ukraine,” adding, “But we’re certainly concerned that North Korea is planning to deliver more military equipment.”
But on Friday, North Korea again flatly denied it has shipped munitions to Russia, calling the US accusation “the groundless theory” cooked up by “some dishonest forces.”
In a statement, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said the nation “remains unchanged in its principled stand on the issue of ‘arms transaction’ between (North Korea) and Russia which has never happened.”
The spokesman didn’t mention Thursday’s US assessment that North Korea sent an arms shipment to the Wagner Group. But he accused the US of “criminal acts of bringing bloodshed and destruction to Ukraine” by providing it with a large amount of weapons, while repeating its support of Russia in the war.
“I would like to say that the Russian people are the bravest people with the will and ability to defend the security and territorial integrity of their country without any others’ military support,” he said.
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US envoy to the United Nations, called it “despicable” that Russia, a permanent veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, which imposed the sanctions, is now using weapons procured from North Korea and Iran “to pursue its war of aggression against Ukraine.”
Kirby said the US had assessed that Wagner has some 50,000 personnel fighting in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts that the company has recruited from prisons.
The US assesses that Wagner, owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin who is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is spending about $100 million a month in the fight, Kirby said.
Wagner’s inflated ranks are linked to its targeted recruitment of convicts in Russian prisons. UK officials say open source estimates suggest that the numbers of convicts in Russian prisons fell by more than 23,000 in the two months leading up to November 2022 – the period in which it was recruiting.
Many convicts are believed to have joined Wagner – though there are no precise numbers. In return they have been told they will get paid and have their sentences commuted after serving six months on the front line.
Wagner Group mercenaries have also been accused by Western countries and UN experts of numerous human rights abuses throughout Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced he had designated the Wagner Group as an “entity of particular concern” for its activities in the Central African Republic.
The British government also condemned Russia for Wagner arm’s purchase. “The fact that President Putin is turning to North Korea for help is a sign of Russia’s desperation and isolation,” Foreign Secretary 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.”