Secret Russian Military Flight to North Korea Fuels Fears of Weapons Sales

A Russian military plane made a mysterious trip to Pyongyang on August 1, according to flight radar.

The flight, RFF7203, took off from Moscow on July 31, landing in North Korea, according to flight maps from Flightradar24, a Swedish flight tracker.

The Russian Air Force Il-62M—the kind of plane used for military delegations—was on the ground for approximately 36 hours, according to NK News, which first reported the mysterious trip.

Russian and North Korean state media don’t appear to have reported on the trip.

It was the first time a VIP Russian plane made the trip to North Korea since 2019, when Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin visited Pyongyang, after which North Korea cut off travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The mysterious flight comes a week after Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang with the goal of convincing leadership in North Korea to boost weapons sales to Russia, according to U.S. intelligence officials’ assessment, White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby told reporters.

Shoigu’s visit came as part of a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the armistice for the 1950-53 Korean War. He met with Kim Jong-un, North Korean Defense Minister Kang Sun Nam and other senior officials, including Jong Kyong Thaek, director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, and Im Chon Il, vice-minister of Foreign Affairs, according to KCNA.

Accompanying Shoigu were Aleksei Krivoruchko, vice-minister of defense, Andrei Rudenko, vice-minister of foreign affairs, and Alexandr Matsegora, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, according to KCNA.

Kang, North Korea’s defense minister, gave Shoigu a tour of an arms exhibition, showing off new attack and spy drones as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), according to Yonhap.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense said the meetings were intended to “help strengthen cooperation between our defense departments.”

The mysterious military plane trip early this month could be a followup from Shoigu’s visit to iron out military deals, according to NK News.

The effort to lean on North Korea for more favors coincides with Russian military failures to make major gains in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. It’s just the latest sign that Russia is becoming more reliant on North Korea to continue to keep up the fight as Russia’s own defense production and supply of equipment flounders.

“It highlights the dire straits that Russia finds itself in, when it comes to resupplying and refreshing its munitions capabilities,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said of the growing relationship between North Korea and Russia.

North Korea has been supportive of Russia’s war in Ukraine from the get-go. Pyongyang has previously accused the west of coercing Moscow to invade Ukraine in order to protect its security interests. Pyongyang has since provided infantry rockets and missiles to Russia’s Wagner Group, according to a White House assessment early this year.

And in March, Russia sought to solidify a deal with North Korea in which Pyongyang would provide Moscow with munitions in exchange for food and commodities it desperately needs.

Following Shoigu’s visit, Kim appears to be doubling down on weapons production plans. He called for North Korean weapons production to increase and for programs to modernize weapons, according to Yonhap. Kim made the rounds, visiting major North Korean military factories days after Shoigu’s trip came to a close, including those that make engines for strategic cruise missiles and large-caliber multiple rocket launchers, according to Yonhap.

Kim said the facilities are important for “war preparations” and called for “steadily increasing the performance and reliability of the engine” and “rapidly expanding its production capacity,” according to KCNA.

North Korea’s work to bolster its weapons production comes as tensions between Pyongyang, Washington, and Seoul have mounted. Kim has been launching a series of missile tests in recent weeks as South Korea and the United States prepare to launch their annual Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise. While Washington and Seoul brand the drill as a defensive mechanism, Pyongyang has claimed they are a rehearsal to invade North Korea.

Kim’s tour of weapons facilities could be a warning from Pyongyang that it can hold its own in the face of perceived threats from South Korea and the United States, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.

“We express deep regret that North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) as well as conventional weapons at the expense of the wellbeing of its citizens,” Koo Byoungsam, a spokesperson for the ministry said.

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