Russia Deploys Top Airlifters For Supply Runs to North Korea: Major Arms Transfer Underway?

Two Russian An-124 heavy airlifters, which are by far the largest in the country and are among under two dozen in service, have reported made multiple flights to North Korea. These follow a preceding reported flight by a Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft from Vladivostok to Pyongyang. While lower value cargo has usually been transferred by sea or rail, the recent flights have been speculated to be facilitating the transfers of higher value armaments either from North Korea to Russia or vice versa – and possibly both ways. Western and South Korean sources have indicated that the aircraft could be transporting North Korean short range ballistic missiles for use by Russian forces in the Ukrainian theatre, which were first reported by the White House be in use on January 2. Multiple subsequent reports have highlighted these missiles’ expanding role in the Russian war effort. While Russia has already seen deliveries of 9K720 missiles for the Iskander-M ballistic missile system surge to several times their pre-war rates, allowing the missile systems to be used in new ways against Ukrainian targets, Korean KN-23B ballistic missiles provide significantly greater ranges and carry much larger payloads than their Russian counterparts. Adding part of the capacity of Korean industry to Russia’s own allows for a significantly greater rate of launches. 

Although valuable in the Ukrainian theatre, ballistic missiles are not usually considered sufficiently costly assets to transport by air, leaving the possibility that the airlifts either involve higher end Korean hardware or high value Russian equipment being sent to its neighbour. A significant possibility which has been widely speculated in the past is that the aircraft are delivering new air defence equipment or fighter aircraft, with the latter being an area where North Korea’s own defence sector is particularly deficient. Russian Su-35 and Su-57 fighters were inspected by North Korean officials including chairman of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party Kim Jong Un on a visit to Russia in September, with the possibility having also been raised that new batches of MiG-29 fighters which the country already fields may be sought out by Pyongyang. North Korea has significantly modernised the equipment of frontline units across its armed forces since the mid 2010s, with the new Pyongae-5 air defence system and its unnamed successor unveiled in 2020 having replaced modernised variants of the Soviet S-75 to form the backbone of its surface to air missile network. Much like Russia, North Korea relies primarily on ground based systems to protect its airspace, but can still use fighters to play important supporting roles for secondary air defence duties, as well as launching standoff missile attacks from within the country’s airspace.