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Could the CIA Thwart North Korea’s Weapons Supply to Russia?

Yes, but it's hardly likely with very cautious White House and risk averse CIA, sources say

3 mins read
William Burns (Getty)

Maybe I re-visited too many World War Two movies and TV series around the 80th  anniversary of D-Day last month, but one of the first things that came to mind while I read about Kim Jong Un’s new ams deal with Russia (following those laughably ornate parades with Vladimir Putin in Pyongyang) was: Can’t we  throw a wrench in this supply train?

You know, arrange to blow up stuff—ships, rail lines, computer systems? Salt the shipments with bad weapons?

Probably, a half dozen former CIA officials, some of whom have been involved in past covert sabotage operations against adversary nations and forces, told me.  But it’s not going to happen anytime soon, if ever, during a Biden administration that’s shown itself to be exceedingly cautious about riling Russia and a risk-averse CIA that’s likely to talk sabotage proposals to death. 

In response to my question of how CIA might propose to sabotage the arms shipments, one former senior CIA manager simply sent me a video clip from Airplane, the one where a passenger named Ted Striker babbles on so much his seatmates commit suicide.

“I loved the video,” said another former top counterterrorism operative I shared it with.  After returning to headquarters after a long action-packed overseas assignment years ago, he said, “I discovered to my horror that I was involved in meetings all day and rarely could focus on an op … I wanted to commit seppuku.”

In any event,  the White House National Security Council would vet any CIA proposals that came its way, and if they liked what they saw, President Biden would have to issue “a finding” approving the ops. Then the congressional Gang of Eight would be let in on them.  

With time running out five months before the election, and facing a polarized Congress dominated by Republicans eager to bring Biden down, the likelihood of the White House proposing any grand covert ops to sabotage the arms shipments at sea or on rail in Russia, via kinetic or cyber ops, is so small as to be nonexistent, my conversants told me. 

“If they did throw around ideas, the first options would be technical—hacking computers, railroad infrastructure, shipping containers, etc.,” retired former CIA operations officer Luis Rueda told me. “These options are more secure, less likely to lead to sources getting wrapped up, [with] more deniability,” he said. If a U.S hand were exposed, he said, the prospect of Russian or North Korean retaliation would be slight, because “they do this shit against us” already.

On the other hand, he added, “We would likely go the easier route of finding that capability from the Ukranians. They could do it, but it opens up a bunch of CI [counterintelligence] problems. The Russians would eventually find out. [But] maybe we could use long range drones, modified Ukrainian drones, to hit the railroad connections [and] blame Ukrainians.” Some reports lay responsibility for the 2022 Nordstream pipeline sabotage on Ukrainian special operators, some blame the U.S., and even Russia itself, but firm proof of who carried out the attack has been elusive.

Others were less impressed with the gravity of the arms deal announced in Pyongyang. One of my interlocutors basically shrugged.

For starters, North Korea has already supplied Russia with millions of artillery shells, according to published reports, and they haven’t won the war. Nor does North Korea have microchips or advanced technology to offer Russia. “And any weapons they get are used to kill civilians,” generally speaking, not Ukrainian troops, another top former CIA manager, who this year visited Ukraine to assess progress in the war,  told me. 

Russia’s military industries are running overtime now, anyway, another former intelligence official advised; they don’t really need basic North Korean stuff that much. Putin’s trumped up sojourns to Pyongyang and Vietnam were mostly propaganda stunts. Beyond China, he really doesn’t have any other friends (and Xi Jinping’s love has its limits). 

Dead Men Shooting

Then there’s the low quality of North Korean shells. They’re killing the troops.

“Russia is using low-quality, often-defective artillery shells from North Korea that can cause problems on the front lines, Ukraine’s army said in a Facebook post” last December, Business Insider reported at the time. “In some cases, the North Korean-supplied shells damage cannon and mortar barrels and even injure Russian soldiers.” 

I heard this from my own sources, who said the U.S. should harp on that: Make sure fresh Russian troops, and their families, know about it. And more, said one.  

“This [North Korean] stuff is so poor quality that I would target Russian supplies to force them to rely on it as much as possible,” said one. “Alternatively, we can do what we did before and insert sabotaged [North Korean] munitions with the regular stuff to convince the Russians not to trust it. That would happen in Russia or their part of Ukraine. But [North Korean] stuff is so bad I like them relying on it.”

Behind-the-lines heroics, in the other words, are much more likely to show up on Netflix or at your local movie theater. At least from the U.S. side, now and come late January, whatever administration is in power.  The killing hands are  hidden.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the editor-in-chief of SpyTalk, a newsletter covering U.S. intelligence, defense and foreign policy, on the Substack platform. Previously, he was the SpyTalk columnist (and national security correspondent) at Newsweek, and before that, the SpyTalk blogger at The Washington Post.

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