North Korean Munitions Factories: The Other Side of Arms Transfers to Russia

Source: Korean Central News Agency

The United States and its allies have made concerted efforts to put an end to the ongoing war in Ukraine. One such endeavor is to stop North Korea’s illegal transfers of weapons to Russia, which the US government believes has occurred as early as 2022, in the months after Russia invaded Ukraine. There have been reports that North Korean missiles were found on the battlefields of Ukraine in recent months.

Given that the arms trade between North Korea and Russia has persisted for over two years, it is now time to be more decisive and effective. Although the US has sanctioned three Russia-based entities and two Russian individuals involved in transferring and testing North Korean ballistic missiles, this is insufficient. These sanctions address only one side of the equation: Russia. To curb these transactions more effectively, the US and the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) should target both parties involved. This starts with a proper understanding of North Korea’s munitions factories that help to fund and advance the country’s weapons programs, including Pyongyang’s production of potentially nuclear-tipped missiles targeting South Korea, Japan or even the US. In order to restrain North Korea’s weapons production and sales, efforts must be sustained, consistent and united, irrespective of whether they are making the headlines of the day.

Overview of Missile-Related Munitions Factories

North Korean munitions factories have been in the world’s spotlight more than ever before, with Pyongyang’s increased coverage of Kim Jong Un’s visits to munitions factories since August 2023, amid much controversy over the deepening of North Korea-Russia ties. South Korea estimates that these factories are “operating at full capacity” to supply ammunition to Russia. Despite the importance of these factories, they remain elusive not only to the public but even to experts due to the closed nature of North Korea and the sensitivities of these installations. Many of these factories also operate under different names (as shown in the table below), adding to the confusion.

The number of munitions factories varies. According to South Korea’s Defense White Paper 2022, North Korea has more than 300 munitions factories, but fewer than 100 factories were operating at that time due to difficulties in supplying power and raw materials. A different, more recent source notes that North Korea currently operates between 60 to 80 munitions factories, primarily situated in Chagang (Jagang) and North Pyongan (Phyongan) Provinces. Additionally, the physical size, the number of employees, the production capacity and the main products of each factory remain largely unknown.

According to Chinese data, approximately 20 factories are specifically involved in missile production and are directly linked to missile bases. They also indicate that these 20 munitions factories have been actively involved in manufacturing and assembling various types of missiles. The core facilities appear to be the Thaesong Machine Factory, Factory No. 125, Factory No. 26 and the Saneum-dong Research Center, which possess the capability to produce and assemble the Hwasong missiles.


Recent reports indicate that North Korea is constructing new munitions factories or remodeling existing ones to boost production in response to the growing demand for weapon sales, including artillery shells for exports to Russia. Additionally, the utilization rate of North Korea’s munitions factories has reportedly risen significantly, particularly since Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to North Korea in July 2023. These new developments mean the information in the table will need to be updated as new details become available.

Funding the Second Economy

Seoul has said Moscow has provided Pyongyang with food, raw materials and parts required for weapons manufacturing in return. Russia is also paying back with cash: recently, it has approved the release of $9 million out of $30 million in frozen North Korean assets deposited in a Russian financial institution. All of this is in addition to the revenues from weapons produced in the above-cited munitions factories and sold to Russia. Such income likely is funneled into North Korea’s so-called “second economy.

North Korea’s “second economy,” or the military economy, is an unofficial economy that has been kept separate from its official national economy and is rarely mentioned to its ordinary citizens, let alone the outside world. Former socialist states also had second economies, but what makes North Korea’s unique is that it is central to the upkeep of the national economy and serves the Supreme Leader’s priorities. These include funding his weapons programs and supporting the discretionary needs of the Kim family. Unlike its official economy, which is overseen by the cabinet, North Korea’s second economy is headed by the Second Economic Commission (SEC), which reports to the Munitions Industry Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). The SEC was established in Kim Il Sung’s time and is responsible for North Korea’s planning, production, distribution and foreign sales of military products. The SEC was strengthened further under Kim Jong Il, when North Korea’s nuclear development began in earnest.

Munitions factories form the basis of the second economy in North Korea. From the early 1960s, then-leader Kim Il Sung pushed for the development of the munitions industry, based on his policy of simultaneously pursuing economic defense and development. Unlike its stated goal, however, Pyongyang’s focus was almost exclusively on building and strengthening the country’s national defense capability, which led to the establishment of the second economy. According to defectors who worked for the regime, including in second-economy institutions, North Korea generally prioritizes the allocation of resources to the second economy over the people’s economy.

North Korea’s official annual defense budget readout omits several key components related to the second economy. Each year, the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s parliament, presents a budget by sector, including defense. However, South Korean experts have assessed that North Korea’s defense budget—typically 15.8 percent—covers only a fraction of expenses for operations and maintenance and does not at all account for defense improvement, such as the procurement of weapons and systems, or research and development (R&D) of weapons and equipment. Pyongyang has never disclosed the sources and amounts of funds used to develop its weapons, which is why some experts have put forth estimates of how much North Korea has spent on its nuclear or missile development.

Although the financial resources for the second economy also stem from illicit activities such as hacking to acquire large amounts of cryptocurrency assets, as the latest and the last UN Panel of Experts on North Korea report suggests, the North’s munitions industry appears to be an increasingly significant source of revenue for the second economy owing to the ongoing war in Ukraine. In other words, whether in the form of cash or crude oil, rewards from Russia in exchange for production from munitions factories are more likely to fund North Korea’s ongoing nuclear ambitions than to benefit the general populace. This may be one reason why North Korea has denied arms sales to Russia, despite heavily publicizing its cooperation with Russia and attempting to foster a positive image of Russia among its citizens.

Bolstering Production Capability

Pyongyang’s weapons exports to Putin’s war in Ukraine align with Kim Jong Un’s policy of upgrading North Korea’s weapons production capacity, pursuant to their five-year plan for our national defense development. This also poses a threat to the United States, South Korea and Japan, all of which are within the reach of North Korean missiles.

In the past, Kim Jong Un focused more on R&D of advanced weapons, but he has gradually placed equal emphasis on “production.” For example, at the Eighth Party Congress in 2021, Kim Jong Un stated his expectation that “making military equipment intelligent, precise, unmanned, high-performance, and lightweight should be set as the priority target of the munitions industry.” At a party plenary meeting in December 2022, however, Kim called for a “super-intense drive for production” of weapons and development. Accordingly, munitions factories have had to step up and become capable of manufacturing quickly and in large quantities weapons with advanced technologies.

Given limited human and financial resources, Pyongyang might have focused on developing a handful of select munitions factories to enable them to produce critical weapons systems. Throughout the second half of 2023 and into May 2024, Kim visited munitions factories to encourage increased production and improved quality. During these visits, he emphasized concepts such as “modernization,” “expanding production capacity,” and “ensuring precision and quality.” Those factories that Kim Jong Un visited are likely to be manufacturing munitions requested by Russia, given the unprecedented frequency of Kim’s visits to, and level of detail about, munitions factories since last August, immediately after Shoigu’s visit to Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Un’s emphasis on munitions factories is not merely for weapons exports to Russia; it is also consistent with his repeated calls on the domestic populace for war preparedness. At a party plenary meeting in December 2023, Kim called on “the People's Army and the munitions industry, nuclear weapons and civil defense sectors to further accelerate the war preparations,” listing the munitions industry only second after the People’s Army.

North Korea’s arms deal with Russia continues to provide Kim with an opportune chance to enhance munitions factories’ production capacity while at the same time further developing North Korea’s own weapons systems, including missiles of various ranges that can reach South Korea, Japan and even the continental US. As North Korea's missiles advance rapidly in both quantity and quality, it will be challenging for US, South Korean and Japanese missile defense capabilities to stay ahead of these threats.

Policy Recommendations

The international community has become even less empowered following the demise on April 30 of the UN Panel of Experts, which was mandated to monitor and assess the implementation of UN sanctions on North Korea. Rigorous implementation of sanctions against North Korea is unlikely to be a viable policy option soon; an increased capacity for monitoring the North’s illegal transactions seems even further out of reach.

However, there are still ways to make sanctions more effective. The authors have four recommendations to monitor and restrain North Korea’s munitions factories.

First, rather than simply blaming Russia’s behaviors, which the international community has less control over, it would be more effective for countries to focus on addressing and closing their own loopholes. According to an analysis by the UK-based Conflict Armament Research (CAR), 90 percent of the electronic components recovered from the debris of North Korean missiles used by Russia originated from 26 companies in eight countries. The United States accounted for the largest share at 75.5 percent, followed by Germany at 11.9 percent, Singapore at 3.4 percent, and Japan at 3.1 percent. Most of these parts were produced between 2021 and 2023.

The immediate priority for these countries, therefore, is to closely scrutinize their own export routes to prevent their products from reaching North Korea. With international sanctions restricting traditional access to missile components, Pyongyang has turned to covert methods such as transshipment in international waters, establishing subsidiaries in China, Russia, and some African countries, and forging covert agreements with various companies. Tracking these requires a calibrated system grounded in close international cooperation to effectively tackle cross-border crimes. The advancement of Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) training would be one good example.

Second, it is important to understand likely supply routes to help identify ways to disrupt them. Work has already been done to roughly estimate the potential transportation routes of North Korean exports to Russia, given that the country’s munitions factories are clustered in the west and close to the North Korea-China border—Kanggye in Chagang Province, Nampho in South Pyongan Province, and Pyongyang—as the map below shows. Factories may use local transportation to Rajin Port (in Rason), which is near the Russia-North Korea border, while those near the North Korea-China border might utilize road and rail networks connected to China and then head into Russia. For factories in the west, ports like Nampho would play a significant role. There is evidence that North Korean products are shipped across the Yellow Sea to ports in China and then travel northbound to Russia.

Figure 2. Map by Kyung-joo Jeon; source: Numbers were manually added by the author to mark the approximate locations of the munitions factories listed in the table above, with the numbers matching those on the far left of the table.

The third way to improve sanctions enforcement is to update the list of designated entities and individuals in a timelier manner. To date, both international and independent sanctions have been slow to impact the North’s munitions factories, let alone the country’s entire second economy. The SEC has been sanctioned by the United Nations, the United States and South Korea. Most of their former senior leaders have also been sanctioned by all three. However, only four factories have been sanctioned solely by South Korea, with some of the key figures in North Korea’s munitions industry, including Pak Thae Song, chairman of the National Space Science and Technology Committee, and O Su Yong, former chairman of the SEC, remaining off the sanctions lists.

Last, despite the failure to extend the UN Experts Panel mandate, alternative efforts to investigate, monitor, and restrain the North’s munitions industry must continue. For one, it is crucial that the current US sanctions targeting Russian entities and individuals be complemented by sanctions against North Korea’s leadership in the munitions industry and its principal factories. South Korea and Japan have separately imposed similar sanctions, and South Korean sanctions included seven North Korean individuals, though not those directly involved in munitions factories. The United States, South Korea and Japan could collaborate to establish a new mechanism for monitoring North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, an option currently under consideration by the US government.

Finally, it is worth noting that Russia is not the only customer of North Korean munitions. News reports indicate that North Korean missile technology has enabled Iran’s attacks on Israel. The role of North Korean munitions factories as a key source of current global conflicts should never be underestimated. If the international community fails to fully commit to preventing North Korea from becoming the “arsenal of autocracy,” it risks losing even more control over wars waged by adversaries and opportunities to curb North Korea’s expansion of its nuclear and missile capabilities.

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    In addition to the sources linked to the factory names, the table has been compiled by referencing the following webpages, portals, articles and books:; 尹瑞涛, “朝鲜“北极星”系列导弹(2),”, March 20, 2020,; the South Korean Unification Ministry’s North Korean information portal (; Joseph S. Bermudez, “A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK,” Occasional Paper No. 2, Monterey Institute of International Studies, November 1999,; Gyeong-Seob Oh, Jin-Ha Kim, Byung-Jin Han, Yong-Han Park, “Cause and Current Status of Bloated Military Economy in North Korea,” Research Papers 18-23, Korea Institute for National Unification, 2018,연구총서%2018-23%5D%20북한%20군사경제%20비대화의%20원인과%20실태.pdf; and Daniel A. Pinkston, The North Korean Ballistic Missile Program (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College), February 2008,

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