Washington claimed last month that Russia was buying weapons from North Korea and using those weapons in Ukraine.
Allegations that the two heavily sanctioned states were stepping up military cooperation came nearly nine months into Russia’s war on its pro-Western neighbor that severely depleted its stockpiles of artillery shells, ammunition and cruise missiles.
If true, the transfers would violate an arms embargo imposed on Pyongyang in 2016 by the United Nations.
Both Pyongyang and Moscow denied the allegations.
The Moscow Times examined the evidence of these arms sales – and the impact North Korean hardware could have on the battlefield in Ukraine.
What is the evidence of North Korean arms deliveries?
Aside from the claims of US officials, many are guesswork.
Weapons and ammunition owned by Pyongyang are mostly made to Soviet designs and could be easily deployed by Russian forces, Darya Dolzikova, a researcher at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, told the Moscow Times.
Although there is no evidence of North Korean weapons on the battlefield – unlike the case of Iranian drones used by Russia – this does not necessarily mean that North Korean weapons or ammunition are not deployed in Ukraine.
North Korea could provide hard-to-identify types of munitions, for example, and shipments to Russia and transport to the front could be disguised, analysts say.
What weapons could Pyongyang send to Moscow?
The United States has alleged that Russia is buying millions of artillery shells from North Korea.
This type of purchase would fit the needs of Russia’s fighting style in Ukraine, which involves heavy use of artillery and missile attacks.
“Russia used the BM-21 [Grad missile launchers] in Ukraine and North Korea has already sold 122mm rockets,” said Daniel Salisbury, an arms trade expert and senior fellow at the Center for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London.
Pyongyang also has other weapons that Moscow might need.
In addition to anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles, North Korea has large stockpiles of ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades.
And, crucially, Pyongyang could help Russia replenish its depleted missile stockpiles.
According to Salisbury, North Korea could provide equipment similar to the Russian Tochka-U ballistic missile system, which Russia has used target artillery from Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky said last month that Russia had fired more than 4,700 missiles during the conflict, including missile barrages aimed at destroying Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
This likely reduced Russia’s stocks, with the New York Times reports last week that Russia is now firing ammunition manufactured over the past few months.
How could Russia receive these weapons?
Amid a UN arms embargo and sanctions imposed on Moscow following the February invasion, North Korea and Russia are likely using clandestine supply channels.
“States like to keep secret all illicit arms transactions that violate sanctions because of the legal implications, but I guess they’re probably worried that the United States and others will try to disrupt shipments,” Salisbury said. .
While North Korea and Russia share a 17 kilometer land border, the reduction in trade after the coronavirus pandemic means that arms transfers would be relatively easy to spot if sent directly to Russia by train or by truck.
Instead, any arms shipment is more likely to pass through a third country, according to Salisbury.
“That’s not unusual for North Korea, which frequently sends things through backdoor routes in order to fool anyone who might be watching,” he said.
How could receiving North Korean weapons help Russia in Ukraine?
Sam Cranny-Evans, a defense analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says buying weapons from countries like Iran and North Korea could provide a palliative for Moscow as it ramps up production of national defense to meet the needs of the army.
This would allow Russia to continue to fight at a similar pace.
“[Russia is] essentially competing with industrial production from the West now, and they have to reorient their defense economy accordingly, which will take time,” Cranny-Evans said.
At the same time, experts believe there are risks associated with North Korean missiles and ammunition, which were probably not manufactured to high standards.
“Russia has no idea what quality control is in North Korea,” William Alberque, director of arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the Moscow Times.
“And if there’s one place where I have a little less confidence in quality control than Russia, it would be North Korea.”