Russia seeks to restore its arsenal with North Korean weapons

After a year and a half of war in Ukraine, Russia needs to replenish its ammunition stockpile. In addition to ramping up its own weapons production, Moscow has decided to turn to a longtime ally with a wider arsenal: North Korea.

According to various estimates, the isolated and reclusive Asian country has millions of artillery shells and rockets that could provide a huge boost to the Russian military.

U.S. officials hope North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un will be able to seal a munitions exchange deal with President Vladimir Putin when he visits Russia in the coming days. If this happens, it will reverse the roles of the two countries in relation to the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, when the Soviet Union supplied arms and ammunition to North Korea.

„We know that during his recent visit (to North Korea), Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was mainly interested in artillery shells, and this issue will be resolved between Putin and Kim Jong Un,” said Alexander Gabov, a director at Carnegie. Russia and the center of Eurasia.

Shoigu became the first Russian defense minister to visit North Korea since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Pictures of Shoigu, along with Kimk and military leadership, carried medals with North Korean women during a huge military parade in the capital, Pyongyang, in July. The uniforms were a strong symbol of Moscow’s dynamic rapprochement with North Korea. Shoigu said there are possibilities for joint military exercises.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment when asked about Kim’s visit and the possibility of a North Korean arms deal with Russia.

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However, he stressed that Moscow values ​​its relations with Pyongyang: „North Korea is our neighbor and we will further develop our relations regardless of the opinions of other countries.”

Kim first visited Russia in 2019 and held talks with Putin that included pledges of closer cooperation, but little visible progress.

Although most of the North’s military arsenals are obsolete, their sheer size could provide the Russian armed forces with an important component in the long-term conflict in Europe since World War II.

Hong Min, an analyst at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification, said Russia could turn North Korea into a „back base” because Pyongyang could supply large quantities of weapons to its war efforts.

„Russia hopes that North Korea will soon be able to create support channels to deliver war materials such as ammunition, explosives and other materials,” Hong said.

The United States said in November that North Korea had sold some ammunition to the Russian private military company Wagner. Both Russian and North Korean officials have denied that Pyongyang has sent weapons or ammunition to Russia, or intends to do so.

U.S. officials see Moscow’s push to acquire North Korean weapons as a reflection of problems with Russia’s military forces. White House security adviser Jack Sullivan said the quality of North Korean weapons was „in question.”

„It says a lot that Russia should turn to a country like North Korea in an effort to improve its defense capabilities in a war it hopes will end within a week,” Sullivan said.

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Even if Washington warns Pyongyang not to send weapons to Russia, which would violate a United Nations embargo on any arms delivery to or from North Korea, observers say the United States can do little to stop it.

They insist that Moscow could share advanced nuclear, missile and submarine technology with Pyongyang in exchange for arms supplies.

„The United States and its allies have limited policy options to address this new challenge,” the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in an analysis.

While North Korea’s massive arsenal could bolster Russia’s war machine, Moscow has imported drones from another ally, Iran, that have played a key role in the fighting.

Russia has used Shahed explosive drones to attack infrastructure in Ukraine for more than a year. After the initial surprise, Ukrainian air defenses have improved their ability to deal with them, but the cheap and simple drones, which have a range of up to 1,500 kilometers (930 miles), cause significant damage.

According to press reports, Russia bought a license to manufacture drones from Iran and built a factory to produce thousands of them a year.

Iran is expected to provide the materials and technology initially, with the plant gradually transitioning to domestically produced components.

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