Following North Korea’s launch of multiple missiles in May, observers scrambled to identify the North Korean weapons that bore a resemblance to Russia’s nuclear-capable Iskander missile system. However, that doesn’t mean that the technology or missiles themselves were necessarily sold or somehow provided to North Korea by Russian and further investigation is needed, Igor Mantsurov, Director of Scientific Research for the Institute of Economics at Ukraine’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, told New Europe in an interview on November 13.

“This situation is not new. It occurred half a year ago after the North Korean government made public a video and photo of military drills where new tactical short-range missiles were launched,” Mantsurov said. “Those missiles resembled, very much, Russia’s well-known tactical Iskander missile. Basically, it’s the previous version, the Iskander E, which is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. This is extremely disturbing and a potentially destabilising factor for the whole region,” he added.

But Mantsurov stressed that exterior resemblance, though very important, doesn’t mean that the technology or the missiles themselves were sold or somehow provided to North Korea by Russia. “A similar weapon is manufactured in China, South Korea…it actually could be sold or stolen from some of former Soviet country. A thorough investigation is needed to come to a conclusion about its origin… and if the investigation proves that Russia was the source of those missiles, its authorities should be punished for committing a gross violation of the international sanctions regime and breaching a United Nations Security Council decision on the sale of missiles and rocket technology to North Korea.”

The fact that DPRK’s missiles bore a resemblance to Russia’s nuclear-capable Iskander missile system, raises the question about whether Moscow is enabling the DPRK’s belligerent and destabilising actions on the Korean Peninsula by providing banned military technology and expertise. “Whether they’re doing it openly or not, I don’t think they would trusted on it, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they are breaching sanctions,” Justin Urquhart Stewart, director at Seven Investment Management in London, told New Europe on 14 November.

He warned that any future Russian involvement with North Korea poses a risk to the Kremlin and Moscow’s international standing as Russia’s companies would face a higher risk of being subject to stiff international sanctions if caught. “But to what extend do the Russians actually care about that?” Urquhart Stewart asked. “They’re very happy, at the moment, providing exports obviously to Syria and other areas,” he added.

Russia claims to be protecting strategic its interests in other global hotbeds like Syria and Venezuela, both of which are close allies of the Kremlin. However, the value of Moscow’s military engagement with North Korea is minimal given the risk of sanctions or financial repercussions for smaller entities that could be connected to DPRK businesses, he said.

Russia cracks down on illegal DPRK activities

In order to ensure that the international sanctions against the North Korea do not hurt Russian equities, Moscow has taken some steps to disrupt illegal DPRK activities. It appears, however, that the negative coverage stemming from Pyongyang’s missile launches and the North Korea-Russia Summit in April risked undermining the steps that the Kremlin has taken to crack down on illegal activities by the North Korean regime.

Given that if Russia is implicated in the DPRK’s illicit actions, that could have a negative effect on Russian businesses, including the natural gas market, Russian banking officials have taken steps against North Korea and Moscow has made progress, spearheaded by Russian Central Bank (CBR) Chairwoman Elvira Nabiullina, cracking down on shady DPRK practices.

The CBR recently took action against Tempbank, and Russian businessmen have acknowledged that they have ceased all engagement with North Korean bankers because Russian banks were seeing their credit lines cut. Financial experts are, however, calling for more sustained progress by Russian banking officials as the DPRK continues to carry out. Its shady practices.

Vladimir Tikhomirov, the chief macroeconomist at BCS Financial Group in Moscow, has hailed Nabiullina’s “impressive achievements in cleaning up the banking system.” He told New Europe earlier that her efforts have resulted in a better monitoring of large banks and a withdrawal of licenses from smaller institutions involved in a variety of shady and semi-legal operations.