UK foreign minister James Cleverly has warned North Korea will pay a “high price” for its support for Russian forces in Ukraine after reports emerged that the mercenary Wagner Group has received arms shipments from the authoritarian regime.
In a statement from the Foreign Office, Mr Cleverly suggested the fact Putin has turned to North Korea for military support was a sign of “Russia’s desperation and isolation” as it struggles to hold onto positions on the frontline in Ukraine.
Reports of North Korea sending arms shipments to the Wagner Group emerged on Thursday after the White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said US officials had obtained data linking the two nations.
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said: “The fact that President Putin is turning to North Korea for help is a sign of Russia’s desperation and isolation.
“We will work with our partners to ensure that North Korea pays a high price for supporting Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine.”
His comments followed the revelation made by the White House that the Wagner Group had taken delivery of an arms shipment from North Korea to help bolster its forces.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said US intelligence officials determined that North Korea completed an initial arms shipment that included rockets and missiles in November.
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Mr Kirby said: “We assess that the amount of material delivered to Wagner will not change battlefield dynamics in Ukraine.
“But we’re certainly concerned that North Korea is planning to deliver more military equipment.”
The White House has expressed alarm about Wagner’s growing involvement in the war as it has been particularly active in the eastern Donbas region.
A significant percentage of its forces have been fighting around the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk Oblast.
The city has been at the centre of Russian assaults on the frontline for almost seven months. It has been referred to as the “meat grinder” owing to the devastation wreaked upon it by Putin’s forces.
The Wagner Group is reported to be fighting around Bakhmut alongside the Donetsk People’s Republic army, which is a pro-Russian paramilitary outfit also known for its brutality.
Wagner Group mercenaries have been accused by Western countries and UN experts of numerous human rights abuses throughout Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.
In its current guise, according to comments by Mr Kirby, there are roughly 50,000 Wagner fighters in Ukraine, 40,000 of whom have been recruited from prisons on the promise that if they serve at least six months in Ukraine, they will be set free. The remaining 10,000 fighters are believed to be contractors.
Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced he had designated the Wagner Group as an “entity of particular concern” for its activities in the Central African Republic.
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Mr Kirby also expressed concern with the authority of the Wagner forces in Ukraine in spite of their its status as soldiers.
He said in come cases, Russian military officials have even been “subordinate to Wagner’s command”.
The group’s leader, Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” owing to his past role supplying dinners to the Russian autocrat, allegedly has an open line to Putin, taking orders from him directly.
In the past few months, Prigozhin has, on multiple occasions, criticised Russian military leaders for failing to be more forceful and attacking in Ukraine.
Mr Kirby added that the US has assessed the Wagner Group is spending about £83 million ($100 million) a month in the fight.
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