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SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea is apparently preparing to sell millions of rockets and artillery shells — many likely from its old stockpile — to its Cold War ally Russia.
Russia has called a US intelligence report on the purchase plan “false”. But US officials say it shows Russia’s desperation over the war in Ukraine and that Moscow could buy additional military hardware from North Korea.
The munitions North Korea reportedly intends to sell to Moscow are likely copies of Soviet-era weapons that can be mounted on Russian launchers. But there are still questions about the quality of the supplies and how much they could really help the Russian army.
What exactly will North Korea supply to Russia?
Hit by international sanctions and export controls, Russia in August purchased Iranian-made drones that U.S. officials said had technical problems. For Russia, North Korea is probably another good option for its ammo supply, as the North maintains a large stockpile of shells, many of which are copies of Soviet-era ones.
North Korea “could represent the largest source of compatible legacy artillery munitions outside of Russia, including domestic production facilities for additional supplies,” said Joseph Dempsey, defense research associate and l military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Lee Illwoo, a Korea Defense Network expert on South Korea, said North and South Korea – divided along the world’s most heavily fortified border for more than 70 years – each hold tens of millions artillery shells. North Korea will likely sell older shells that it wants to replace with newer shells for several rocket-launching systems or sophisticated missiles at its frontline military bases, he said.
North Korea’s greater reliance on nuclear weapons and guided missiles could also remove the need for many of its older unguided artillery shells that once played prominent roles, said Ankit Panda, an expert on Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But Bruce Bennett, senior security expert at the California-based Rand Corporation, said most artillery shells to be sent to Russia would likely be small arms ammunition, such as AK-47 rifles or machine guns.
“It’s not millions of artillery shells and rockets – it’s more than likely consumption. It could be millions of small arms rounds,” Bennett said.
What is the quality of North Korean weapons?
According to an IISS assessment, North Korea has about 20,000 artillery pieces, including several rocket launchers in service, a number Dempsey described as “far more than any other country in the world.”
North Korean state media called its artillery guns the “first weapon of the People’s Army and the most powerful weapon in the world” capable of reducing the enemy position to “a sea of flames”.
But its old artillery systems, the ammunition of which will probably be supplied to Russia, have a reputation for being inaccurate.
During North Korea’s artillery bombardment of South Korea’s frontline Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, which killed four people, Bennett said only 80 of the 300 to 400 weapons North Korea would have had to shoot probably hit their target. In his assessment, Lee said about half of the North Korean shells fired ended up falling in the waters before reaching the island.
“It’s a poor artillery performance. The Russians can go through the same thing, which won’t make them very happy,” Bennett said.
Observers doubt the usefulness of North Korean ammunition for the Russian campaign in Ukraine, which they say has exhausted the military. There have been photos of broken Russian firearms on social media.
It is unclear how serious the Russian ammunition shortage is. In July, a senior US defense official told reporters that Russia was launching tens of thousands of artillery fire every day and could not continue indefinitely.
“While substantial stockpiles likely still exist, they could increasingly encroach on those reserved for the possibility of a future broader conflict,” Dempsey said.
No North Korean missiles planned
North Korea is unlikely to supply Russia with ballistic missiles it considers crucial in its military strategies toward Washington and Seoul, said Yang Uk, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
And if North Korea decides to supply missiles to Russia, it will also have to send its launch platforms because Russia does not have launchers for Scuds and other missiles from the North. North Korea has developed a highly maneuverable nuclear-powered ballistic missile that was likely modeled after the Russian Iskander. But the two missiles are different sizes, according to Shin Jongwoo, a Korea Defense and Security Forum military expert based in Seoul,
There would be a number of items that North Korea could supply to Russia, given that the two countries share weapons systems dating back to Soviet times. But the kind of ammunition North Korea would supply to Russia “will likely be old and close to expiration,” said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst at Korea Research Institute for South Korea’s National Strategy.
What could North Korea get in return?
In exchange for weapons, North Korea is likely to want food, fuel and other materials from Russia because the North has difficulty buying such goods overseas due to UN sanctions. imposed on its nuclear program.
Panda said North Korea would likely benefit in the form of cash transfers from Russia, or perhaps greater Russian leniency by not applying further sanctions to Pyongyang, including the transfer of materials. necessary for the growth of North Korean missile programs.
According to Bennett, North Korea would be ready to be compensated with fuel. For its most advanced weapons, it could seek advanced weapons technologies from Russia, possibly including those it needs for its planned nuclear test, the first of its kind in five years, he said.