Satellite pics show spike in rail activity at NKorea-Russia border

Satellite images show a sharp increase in activity at a railway yard in North Korea on the Russian border, prompting experts to speculate that Pyongyang may be sending trainloads of weapons to its northern neighbor.

Photos of a depot just north of North Korea’s Tumen River Station – separated by just 5 kilometers (3 miles) of track from Khasan Station in the Russian Far East – taken Sept. 22 by U.S. commercial satellite operator Planet Labs show an abundance of rail cars appearing to carry cargo. The area was completely empty in photos taken on Sept. 14.

The activity ramped up following the conclusion of Kim Jong Un’s Sept. 13-17 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which the two leaders agreed to boost their military cooperation amid Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. Experts said this would most likely occur through Russia’s weapons technology transfer in exchange for North Korea’s conventional ammunition.

Satellite photos taken Sept. 24 show that the cargo was more organized, with two lines of rail containers on the track, one line extending about 200 meters (220 yards) and the other 300 meters (330 yards). Additionally there are several loaded trains parked on the track, about 20 meters in length each.

Experts say there is no clear evidence in the photos that North Korea is shipping munitions to Russia. But the proximity to the summit and the increased level of cooperation between Seoul and Moscow over the past year suggest that is what is happening, experts said.

Jacob Bogle, a private satellite imagery analyst and curator of the AccessDPRK project, told RFA that when compared to the period between 2020 and early 2022, exchanges between the two countries have increased over the past year.

“It cannot be ruled out that the activity seen is arms trading, but it could also be more benign cargo as well,” Bogle said. “Russia expends around 10 million artillery shells a year in Ukraine, so rapid transfers by North Korea would help relieve those shortages.”

Artillery ammunition?

North Korean exports to Russia have traditionally included minerals such as coal and seafood, and suspicions of arms trade between North Korea and Russia were first raised in late 2022.

North Korea could be supplying Russia with older artillery shells based on Soviet-era weapons, Gary Samore, a former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, told RFA.

“North Koreans have a very large stockpile of ammunition for artillery and tanks and rockets,” he said. “It has been manufacturing ammunition for its own military forces, especially artillery … for decades. … if they're sending old ammunition to Russia, … from Russia’s standpoint, it's better than having nothing.”

The images appear to show that North Korea loaded cargo onto a train and transported it to Russia, Bruce Songhak Chung, a researcher at the Seoul-based Korean Institute for Security and Strategy, told RFA Korean.

If the cargo had been coming from Russia, it would have been unloaded at Tumen River Station instead of at the depot in between the station and the border, he said.

Chung said the latest imagery is not the first that indicates rail shipments from North Korea to Russia, as the depot is the same area identified by the United States in December 2022 as having a train being loaded with weapons heading to Russia.

“The operation of cargo-laden trains at Tumen River Station was confirmed several times, even as far back as before … the Russian minister of defense visited North Korea on the Day of Victory on July 27,” said Chung, referring to the anniversary of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

Chung said that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to North Korea and Kim’s visit with Putin suggest that “arms trade using logistics exchanges between North Korea and Russia is likely to increase.”

The Beyond Parallel website, run by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, reported Friday that satellite photos likely showed weapons shipments from North Korea to Russia.

“Given that Kim and Putin discussed some military exchanges and cooperation at their recent summit, the dramatic increase in rail traffic likely indicates North Korea’s supply of arms and munitions to Russia,” the report said. “However, the extensive use of tarps to cover the shipping crates/containers and equipment makes it impossible to conclusively identify what is seen at the Tumangang Rail Facility.”

A State Department spokesperson told RFA on Oct. 2 that previous arms discussions between Russia and North Korea likely continued during Kim Jong Un’s trip to Russia.

“A burgeoning military relationship between Russia and the DPRK, including additional transfers of weapons from the DPRK to Russia and technology transfers from Russia to the DPRK, will further undermine the global non-proliferation regime,” the spokesperson said, using an acronym to refer to North Korea and urging the two countries to suspend military cooperation.

Source: Radio Free Asia

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