New North Korean weapons shipment at the Russian port Vostochny

Satellite imagery shows the cargo ship Lady R, allegedly at the heart of a weapon transfer operation, delivering goods this week from Rason, North Korea, to Vostochny, in Russia.

According to NK Pro’s analysis of satellite data, a Russian cargo ship has transported hundreds of containers from North Korea to a port in the Far East for the first time in a suspected weapons trading operation.

From North Korea’s Rason Port, the Lady R (IMO: 9161003) loaded stacks of 20-foot (6-meter) shipping containers on March 12, and two days later, it arrived in Vostochny Port with a deck full of cargo, according to Planet Labs images.

The next day, the majority of the containers didn’t seem to be on the deck, indicating that the cargo had been unloaded for delivery within Russia.

Lady R has been critical of the purported arms trade operation between Russia and North Korea. It is possible that the most recent cargo contains military hardware from North Korea, and it represents Russia’s first armament delivery since mid-February.

From approximately February 13 to March 10, it seemed as though Rason Port had stopped suspected weapons imports. This could indicate problems with North Korean production, but it’s still possible that shipments took place by air or via a cross-border train line during that period.

The Lady R, along with the Angara, Maia-1, and Maria, is one of four Russian cargo ships that have taken cargo from Rason since last August. The United States has sanctioned all of them for their ties to the Russian army, which is waging a war against Ukraine.

Based on indirect proof, it was assumed that exports from Rason at the beginning of the operation were military-related because the port did not handle container goods for years and seemed to service only Russian ships headed for a distant navy port in the Far East called Dunay.

Otherwise, Dunay mostly accommodates warships and lacks the capacity to manage major cargo shipments. This, along with the Russian vessels’ failure to reveal their identities upon delivery, indicates that both parties have attempted to conceal their activities while transporting dubious cargo.

The United States stated in October that the containers were filled with artillery shells and missiles for use in Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, despite satellite imagery showing a buildup of the same kind of containers outside weapons warehouses in western Russia coinciding with the start of the deliveries.

Weapons analysts have come to the conclusion that Russia has been using short-range ballistic missiles and North Korean rockets to strike Ukrainian cities in recent months. UN sanctions prohibit the transfer of any kind of weaponry to or from North Korea.

It appears that Pyongyang and Moscow have attempted to give the impression that the shipping operation out of Rason is weapons-free by stopping the use of Dunay in late December.

From that point on, it seems that the four Russian vessels have solely carried cargo from Rason to Vostochny, a significant commercial port that doesn’t seem to have any military applications. This gives Russia a defense against claims that it has been trading weapons with North Korea.

Given that the Lady R is part of the same operation out of Rason as the other three ships, it is likely transporting similar goods, even though it has never been visible in commercial satellite photography currently available at Dunay.

According to Planet Labs imagery, the Maia-1 appeared to remain stationed in waters east of Vladivostok on March 15, and the Maria was in the same location on March 13. At Zhoushan Xinya Shipyard in China, the Angara is presently undergoing repairs.

A Russian cargo plane with a history of delivering weapons made an unusual diversion to Pyongyang on March 11, while traveling from Shanghai to Moscow. Bilateral weapons trading could be the reason for this maneuver.

The cooperation of two rogue regimes in the context of Putin’s ongoing war against Ukraine at the doorstep of the EU, and particularly missile delivery to Russia, contributes to prolonging the war, helps the Kremlin troops to kill more Ukrainians and threatens to expand it beyond Ukraine’s borders. It’s critical to prevent the supply of weapons from North Korea to Russia and to impose sanctions on those responsible for these shipments. 

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