Russia's desperate need for weapons in Ukraine could be a big win for the North Korean military
- Russia is seeking weapons and ammunition from North Korea to continue its war in Ukraine.
- In return, Kim Jong Un could receive food and advanced technologies for satellites and nuclear submarines.
Russia's desperation and pariah status are growing and forcing President Vladimir Putin to turn to North Korea to fuel his war in Ukraine. Both sides stand to gain, but a partnership could be a big win for North Korea.
Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the Amur region of Russia for a summit with Putin. Western officials previously warned that the two nations had been negotiating an arms deal of sorts that could replenish dwindling Russian ammunition stockpiles.
One Western official told the BBC that Russian forces fired between 10 million and 11 million artillery shells in 2022 after the initial full-scale invasion in February, and while Moscow could up its domestic production to around 2 million shells annually, that's not enough to satisfy Russia's insatiable shell hunger. That is where North Korea could come in: providing rockets and shells.
"The ammunition will be a morale booster that will increase the combat capability of the soldiers. This will contribute to a longer war and increase Russia's chances," retired South Korean Army Lieutenant general Chun In-bum told Insider.
In return for its munitions, which it has in abundance, North Korea could receive advanced technology it doesn't have yet — satellite support, which Putin confirmed he'd be providing, according to Russian state media, as well as capabilities for nuclear-powered submarines.
North Korea could also receive petroleum products and food, which, according to a United Nations Security Council meeting this past August, North Korea desperately needs as its people starve. Part of the country's inability to feed its population comes from its "Military First" policy, Elizabeth Salmón, the UN special investigator on human rights in North Korea, said during the summit, as Kim prioritizes the country's defense budget.
Thus, an alliance would surely be mutually beneficial in the short and long term. But it also signals something bigger between the two.
"There is a reason why North Korea has been open and consistent with its public support – both political and material – to Russia's war efforts," said Jenny Town, director of 38 North, an analysis publication of The Henry L. Stimson Center, "as they stand to gain from that relationship in a multitude of ways that are low political risk to Kim Jong Un and high reward."
When Kim left his so-called "Hermit Kingdom" last week, it was clear something was shifting. The trip was the dictator's first known international departure in more than four years, the last also being to Russia in 2019 for a meeting regarding North Korea's nuclear program. A Putin-Kim partnership specifically involving arms and ammo for Russian soldiers in Ukraine has been in the work for months at least, though, as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited the DPRK in late July to, according to a top White House official, ask for support.
"We remain concerned that the DPRK continues to contemplate providing military support to Russia's military operations against Ukraine," White House National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby said at the time, referring to North Korea by its official name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
If North Korea were to strike a deal, it's certainly got the stockpile to do so — nominally assessed at the unclassified level as being enough for three to six months of war, according to Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a Senior Fellow for Imagery Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a North Korean defense and intelligence affairs expert.
Pyongyang could offer enough to provide a stopgap for Russia, and considering North Korea's extensive industrial infrastructure for weapons systems, more could be on the way. "The challenge is that it doesn't operate at full capacity typically," Bermudez said, adding that North Korea is "operating at a maintenance level as opposed to a wartime level" and it'll take them time to ramp up production if they're to provide Russia with ongoing support.
And while their means of production are older and manufacturing is a relatively slower process, it doesn't necessarily mean they produce inferior munitions — but there has been "some quality control issues" with ammunition sent overseas by North Korea, Bermudez said.
A 2010 North Korean artillery strike on Yeonpyeong Island, for instance, saw an estimated 20 of 80 rounds fail to detonate. "This high failure rate suggests that some DPRK-manufactured artillery munitions — especially MRL [Multiple Rocket Launcher] rounds — suffer from either poor quality control during manufacture or that storage conditions and standards are poor," a 38 North 2011 report said.
Some other experts and analysts suggested in the days leading up to the Putin-Kim summit that North Korean munitions were outdated and unreliable. It's unclear what specific munition Russia would be seeking and what the condition of said ammo would be in, but it frankly might not matter if Moscow is desperate enough.
"North Korean arms, especially if provided beyond just stockpiles but including new production, could help prolong Russia's warfighting efforts. Although North Korean production efforts would likely need additional resources of raw materials and/or energy to be increase output in substantial quantities," Town told Insider.
But while "North Korean artillery and munitions are useful" for Russia, "this whole relationship is signaling a shift in how Russia values military cooperation with North Korea – both for war efforts, but in a broader war against the West," she added.
That "broader war against the West" may include giving North Korea what it's currently lacking.
Officials speculated to The New York Times the wish list included advanced technology for satellites and nuclear-powered submarines. The latter would be especially timely given North Korea unveiled a "tactical nuclear attack submarine" days before the Putin-Kim meeting which appeared to be a heavily refurbished Cold War-era Romeo-class vessel that an naval expert called "kind of shoddy."
According to Bermudez, food and petroleum products are likely the top requests, but technology and resources, such as "scientists, technicians, engineers to improve what North Korea is doing" are up there as well. As for satellites, North Korea maintains the ability to produce its own satellite launch vehicles, but they may need help ironing out stage separation and reliability details.
Its air force, too, could use some upgrades, as it currently operates antique aircraft like the MiG-21 and MiG-23. That puts it at a major disadvantage to regional foes, like South Korea, Japan, and the US forces in each of these countries, all of which have fifth-generation fighters.
But Russia's assistance in these areas might look a little more like teaching North Korea to support itself rather than a direct technology transfer. Nuclear-powered submarines would require Russian technicians and updated capabilities, as the jump from diesel-electric to nuclear power isn't an easy one, but North Korea has been producing submarines for decades and, numerically, has one of the largest naval fleets in the world, though it is mostly made of small coastal vessels.
"What they really need though," Bermudez told Insider, "is quieting technology" to make noisier subs, like that Romeo rework, stealthier.
It's still not crystal clear what Russia might provide or how much effort it'll take to give North Korea what it wants. But Putin's willingness to work with North Korea speaks volumes about the Hermit Kingdom's increasingly prominent role as a political ally and indicates the decision to military cooperate with North Korea serves national interests that outweigh the negatives of sanctions, international community responses, or increased global isolation.
"I believe Kim will get everything he wants: money, technology, food and fuel," In-bum said, adding that he could get it directly from the Russians, if not through the usual nefarious channels like stealing and bribery. But again, there is more to it.
"Kim probably views it as the beginning of a relationship that he wants to develop," Bermudez said, adding that potential "real improvements" out of the two's relationship could include training exercises with Russian naval and air forces, and ultimately, would set Russia and North Korea as an aligned ideological opponent to the West.
"For both Kim and Putin this recent visit and possible future cooperation is a prestige builder," he said, but it remains to be seen how that evolves.
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