North Korea has sent military equipment to Russia for use by the Wagner Group, the private army fighting for Moscow in Ukraine, and Pyongyang is planning further deliveries, a top White House official said on Thursday.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the delivery occurred last month and was paid for by the Russia-based mercenary company, although the amount of equipment delivered "will not change battlefield dynamics in Ukraine."
"Last month, North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner," Mr Kirby told reporters. "We are certainly concerned that North Korea is planning to deliver more military equipment."
Mr Kirby said the delivery marks the latest example of Wagner's expanding influence.
"Wagner's independence from the Russian defence ministry has only increased and elevated over the course of the 10 months of this war," Mr Kirby said.
He claimed that in certain instances, Russian military officials are "actually subordinate" to Wagner's command.
Mr Kirby said Wagner has about 50,000 personnel deployed to Ukraine, including 10,0000 contractors and 40,000 thousand convicts.
Thousands of prisoners, many of them locked up for violent crimes, have volunteered to fight in Ukraine or are being pressed into service as Russia scrambles to find more men for the front lines.
Washington believes 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in "recent fighting" in Ukraine.
"We believe that 90 per cent of those 1,000 fighters were in fact convicts," Mr Kirby said. "It's pretty clear to us that Mr Prigozhin has absolutely no regard for life whatsoever, certainly not Ukrainian lives, but I'd go so far as to say not Russian lives either."
The White House made the claims in tandem with an announcement that Washington was expanding its classification of the group as a "military end user." This does not go as far as classifying Wagner as a foreign terrorist organisation, despite calls to do so from Congressional leaders.
A bipartisan group of Senators this month introduced the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act, that would require the designation of Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organisation.
“Putin and his cronies will stop at nothing to accomplish their objectives, including employing mercenaries like the Wagner Group to commit atrocities on their behalf,” Senator Roger Wicker, who introduced the bill, said in a statement.
“The US should call this shadow army what it is: a foreign terrorist group. We must hold them accountable along with any who support them."
Mr Kirby argued on Thursday that the new "military end user" designation will help to cut off equipment sources for the group.
"We want to restrict as much as we can their lifelines to procurement going forward around the world," he added.
The announcement follows Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's historic visit to Washington, where he met with US President Biden and delivered a rousing address to a joint session of Congress urging enhance support.