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Russia is trying to buy weapons from North Korea, the U.S. says

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The White House says Russia is trying to purchase weapons from North Korea.

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LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Russia is negotiating potential deals for significant quantities and multiple types of munitions from the DPRK to be used against Ukraine.

MARTIN: That's Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., speaking at the U.N. Wednesday. She says U.S. intelligence reveals the Russian defense minister's recent visit to North Korea was part of the effort to set up an arms deal. Thomas-Greenfield called the move shameful and illegal.

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THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Any such arms deals would be a serious violation of resolutions the Security Council adopted unanimously.

MARTIN: And I will mention here that both Moscow and Pyongyang have previously denied these allegations about weapons. For more on this, though, I'm joined now by John Kirby. He is White House National Security Council spokesperson. Good morning. Thank you for joining us.

JOHN KIRBY: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What kinds of arms is Russia hoping to get from North Korea? Do we know?

KIRBY: Well, we know that at the very least, they're interested in artillery ammunition particularly. But we also have information that they're seeking other types of munitions to assist their war in Ukraine and, quite frankly, that they're also looking for the raw materials that would go into - the components that would go into producing higher-grade weapons, you know, the kinds of electronic components that you might need to use to build missiles and rockets and that kind of thing. So it's a wide panoply of capabilities that they're seeking, but artillery seems to be the main focus. When you look at what's happening in the east and south of Ukraine right now, it's a gunfight. I mean, it is an artillery duel between the Ukrainians and the Russians predominantly. And so both sides are working through their inventories of artillery at a pretty fast clip.

MARTIN: You know, this isn't the first time we've heard this. In September of 2022, there were reports then that Russia was purchasing munitions and supplies from North Korea. Do we know whether any equipment from North Korea has already been used on the battlefield in Ukraine?

KIRBY: What we know for sure, Michel, is that artillery shells, thousands of them, were, in fact, shipped into Russia from North Korea for use predominantly by the Wagner Group. What's different now is that we're seeing high-level contacts between Russia and North Korea, high-level - all the way up to Putin's level and Kim Jong Un's level. And in a more official capacity, what we saw before was, you know, arms and ammunition going to Wagner, the private military contractor. Now we're seeing an effort to secure an arms deal between two nation-states for use by the Russian military forces. That's what makes this difference.

MARTIN: Does this tell us something about the state of Russia's military?

KIRBY: It certainly does. I mean, it's another example of the degree to which Mr. Putin is becoming desperate to keep his war machine going. Now, I don't want to overstate that. He still has a vast military capability available to him. He still has the advantage of numbers in terms of troops and aircraft and tanks and all that kind of thing. But the war is taking a toll on his defense industrial base. It's taking a toll on his ability to keep his troops armed in the field. And that's why he's reaching out to countries like Iran for drones and North Korea for artillery ammunition. So it's definitely a sign of desperation, definitely a sign that the war has taken a toll on his ability to keep his troops in the field.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I mean, I'm assuming that the incentive for North Korea is, you know, food and other commodities. But the question here is, you know, President Trump met face to face with the North Korean leader in 2018. I think people will remember that. Does the U.S. currently have any leverage with that country that could discourage North Korea from moving ahead?

KIRBY: Well, the leverage is what we're using right now, is exposing this when we see it. And we're making it public, getting it out there, so that people know what we're seeing and the information that we have. And calling it out at the U.N., as Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield did yesterday, was really important. And of course, we'll continue to work with our U.N. allies and partners in terms of additional sanctions, should they be necessary. There is leverage, economic leverage, that can be applied to North Korea. But ultimately, North Korea has got to make the right decision here, which is not to make it easier for Putin to kill innocent Ukrainian people.

MARTIN: That is White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby. Mr. Kirby, thanks so much for your time.

KIRBY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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