North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a high-security visit to Russia on an armored train to meet with President Vladimir Putin. This rendezvous, taking place in Vladivostok, marks Kim Jong Un’s first departure from North Korea since the Covid-19 pandemic. But what’s the purpose of this meeting? Analysts suggest that Putin is keen to discuss potential arms deals with the North Korean leader, a matter of great significance as the Russia-Ukraine conflict enters its 19th month.
The Ammunition Shortage Russia has significantly depleted its ammunition reserves during its invasion of Ukraine. It was estimated that Russia was firing a staggering 60,000 artillery rounds per day in 2022, according to a study by the Royal United Services Institute. To put this into perspective, during the entire three-month Kargil War, the Indian Army fired over 2.5 lakh shells, bombs, and rockets.
A Reuters report from December 2022 indicated that Russia had started using decades-old ammunition with a high failure rate as it ran out of its supplies. Analysts believe that North Korea possesses tens of millions of compatible Soviet-era artillery shells and rockets. This makes a potential North Korean arms deal a solution to a critical problem for Russia.
North Korea’s Arsenal According to ‘The Military Balance,’ published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), North Korea boasts a staggering 21,600 artillery pieces, most of which are of common Soviet origin. The country possesses an extensive stockpile of almost everything that Russia requires to sustain its war efforts in Ukraine.
Joseph Dempsey, a research associate for defense and military analysis at the IISS, stated that North Korea “may represent the single biggest source of compatible legacy artillery ammunition outside of Russia, including domestic production facilities to further supplies.”
Russia’s Needs Russia could be interested in acquiring rockets and shells compatible with its Soviet-era launchers, as well as ammunition for small arms like AK-47 rifles or machine guns. This includes 152MM shells for the M1974 and M-1977 self-propelled gun-howitzers and the 130 mm artillery piece for the towed field gun M-46, manufactured in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Additionally, ammunition for the M1937 Soviet heavy gun-howitzer, howitzer M1938, and a Soviet World War II-era 152.4 mm howitzer M1943 might be on Russia’s shopping list. Russia’s self-propelled 122 mm multiple rocket launcher, the BM-21 “Grad,” which was designed in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, also requires compatible ammunition.
North Korea’s Potential Gains For North Korea, disposing of its surplus and outdated ammunition could be advantageous. Kim Jong Un may secure foreign exchange and put pressure on the US and NATO. In exchange, the impoverished nation, which has been hit hard by UN sanctions due to its nuclear program, might seek food, fuel, and other raw materials from Russia. Ankit Panda, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggests that North Korea could be benefiting from cash transfers from Russia or greater leniency from Russia in enforcing other sanctions, including the transfer of materials necessary for North Korea’s missile programs.
In recent years, Russia and North Korea have drawn closer, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Their relationship has been driven by Putin’s need for military assistance and Kim’s efforts to strengthen his alliances with traditional partners Moscow and Beijing as he seeks to break out of diplomatic isolation and join a united front against Washington.