31.01.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

What is covered by the “pictures of the Russian train”?

We recently wrote about the ways the United States’ allegations of North Korean munitions shipments to Russia had created a new standard of proof. However, it appears that the US side is not content with having hit rock bottom once again.

On January 20, 2023 National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby raised new allegations against the Wagner PMC and Russia, claiming that the US had presented its intelligence findings to the relevant expert group of the UN Security Council (Committee 1718, which is in charge of sanctions against the DPRK). Although this was the first time ever any “evidence” had been presented, it was unfortunately very peculiar type of proof.

The world was shown “rare, declassified photographs of Russian rail cars traveling between Russia and North Korea in November” and what Kirby described as the original delivery of North Korean weapons to the Russian PMC. According to the US statement, the photos were of a five-car train that ran between the Khasan (Russian Federation) and Tumangan stations on November 18 and 19, 2022, and those cars contained ammunition for Wagner.

“We obviously condemn North Korea’s actions and call on North Korea to immediately stop these shipments to Wagner,” Kirby said at the start of the daily White House press briefing. He then stated that “while we estimate that the amount of material delivered to Wagner has not changed the dynamics of the fight in Ukraine, we anticipate that it will continue to receive North Korean weapons systems” and therefore “will not preclude imposing additional sanctions if deemed appropriate at the UN”. As an aside, it was noted that North Korea continues to circumvent sanctions with the help of Russia and China.

On January 23, State Department spokesman Ned Price also stated that the United States and South Korea regularly discuss how to counter threats from North Korea, including “the supply of weapons and other military equipment from North Korea to Wagner units for use in Ukraine”.

Not coincidentally, not only Russian but also Western experts who deal with North Korea professionally have noted this reference with some surprise. Even those who dislike the North reacted in the style of “maybe the US has other evidence that has not been shown to us, but this is just a hint.”

Asked by RIA Novosti if it could be said with certainty that the pictures show weapons being transported from the DPRK to Russia, NK News director Chad O’Carroll said the photos do not show what is called hard evidence that would confirm US claims. The photos DO NOT show weapons or grenades being loaded and only include an image of Russian rail cars in North Korea – which, he adds, Russian media have also written about. That White House officials, according to O’Carroll, “show some level of specificity by releasing satellite images of a certain date showing rail cars and cargo” only means that Washington is very confident in its intelligence, but “anyone would be happy to see more detailed evidence”.

Another US expert noted that the pictures provided by Kirby show covered rail cars in which containers of ammunition would not fit, especially since they are loaded on platforms and not in boxcars. He also pointed out that “the versions voiced by Washington keep changing. In September, they claimed that North Korea was supplying Russia with millions of artillery shells and missiles. They claimed Pyongyang was trying to make it appear that the supplies were going to the Middle East and Africa, but in fact they were going to Russia. Now that version is forgotten – there is a new one. Meanwhile, one million shells is 50,000 tons, which is several large ships.”

The claim that the data were sent to the committee that investigated the sanctions is also not identical to the fact that the experts who examined them agreed with the American version.

In this context, the author will try to explain to the audience what more reasonable evidence of this kind would look like, using pictures of the train: Here is a picture of what looks like a military factory, and of containers of ammunition being loaded into wagons; here is a traceable route (because it is not particularly difficult to trace their path through the consignor system) by which a train from North Korea went directly into the front line area where it was unloaded, whereupon the shell shortage ended in that section of the front line. Such things can still be used as evidence, although indeed some questions remain.

The second thing that came to the author’s mind was a quote from a Russian cartoon, “This picture is useful: it covers a hole in the wall,” and he draws attention to two events that paralleled Kirby’s statement.

The first event is that on January 19, 2023, the day before Kirby’s statement, the Pentagon asked United States Forces Korea (USFK) to provide some of its equipment in support of Ukraine, stressing that its security operations on the Korean Peninsula would not be “affected in any way” by this move. USFK spokesman Col. Isaac Taylor said, “The Department of Defense continues to provide military assistance from its reserves in support of Ukraine. US forces in Korea have been asked to support this effort by providing some of their equipment… This does not affect our operations or our ability to fulfill our ironclad commitment to protect our ally, the Republic of Korea. There should be no doubt that we are ready to fight tonight as well”.

Taylor did not specify, however, what equipment or in what quantity would be delivered for use in Ukraine. The ROK Department of Defense also declined to comment on the issue.

The New York Times had previously reported that the US Department of Defense had drawn on US artillery stockpiles in South Korea and Israel because of Ukraine’s urgent need for munitions assistance.

USDOD deputy spokeswoman Sabrina Singh clarified this information, pointing out that the withdrawal of munitions and military equipment from US depots in South Korea and other countries in support of Ukraine had no impact on US defense capabilities and had little to do with reducing domestic stockpiles. It has also come to light that the US is in talks with Korean military contractors to replenish empty depots.

To the author, this information indicates two important things.

First, despite the loud declarations about the danger of the North Korean threat and the need to give money to counter it, it appears that the US does not in fact particularly believe that the North will attack the South in the relatively near future. Otherwise, they would not have moved an arsenal to Ukraine from a place where these munitions could be urgently needed.

Second, the fact that ammunition is being sent to Korea means that the arsenal of democracy is not bottomless and is slowly running out. Weapons and ammunition even need to be withdrawn from long-term storage. As we noted in one of our articles, it appears that their talk of Moscow’s “ammunition shortage” is masking their own ammunition scarcity, which is not so much affecting Russia as it is Ukraine and its allies.

Combined with a number of other news items, this suggests that the Europeans are growing weary of the conflict and increasingly reluctant to hand over new arms tranches to Kiev. This is a rather important sign, suggesting that in a certain situation Kiev will come to understand that for all the need to “defend democracy,” it has to do it alone.

The second event is a statement by Russian Foreign Intelligence that Ukrainian authorities are placing munitions from the West in nuclear power plants because they know that Moscow will not dare to bomb them. Foreign Intelligence Director Sergei Naryshkin said, “The Foreign Intelligence Service receives reliable information that Ukrainian forces are storing weapons and ammunition supplied by the West on the premises of nuclear power plants. This applies to the most expensive and scarce missiles for Haymar’s multiple rocket launchers and foreign air defense systems, as well as large-caliber artillery ammunition the AFU lacks most. Just in the last week of December 2022, several railroad cars with lethal cargo were delivered from abroad to the Rovno NPP via the Rafalovka station. Moreover, we would like to hope that no one in Kiev would come up with the idea of deliberately destroying such depots in order to extricate more weapons and ammunition from the US and its allies.

Naryshkin’s statement does not contain exhaustive evidence, but the reasoning is somewhat more detailed than Kirby’s and contains some specifics. Apparently, it is precise data on where and how Ukrainian ammunition stocks move.

Mykhailo Podolyak, advisor to the head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office, then stated on social networks that “Ukraine has never stored weapons on the territory of the nuclear power plant” and noted that Ukraine is “always open” to inspection bodies, especially the IAEA.

In this context, the author once again reminds us that it is not unusual in war to attribute to the enemy acts committed by one’s own side in order to divert attention from oneself. So if you want to make the next lofty claims of DPRK intrigue, look at the holes in the wall this picture covers.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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