The United States is accusing North Korea of secretly supplying Russia with artillery shells for its war in Ukraine by disguising where they were being transported, according to recently declassified intelligence.
U.S. officials say the covert North Korean shipments — along with drones and other weapons Russia has acquired from Iran — are further evidence that even Moscow’s conventional artillery has been depleted in the eight months of fighting. North Korea is trying to disguise the shipments by making it appear as if the munitions are sent to countries in the Middle East or North Africa, the intelligence agency says.
The recent intelligence comes about two months after the U.S. intelligence community said it believed Russia was in the process of buying millions of missiles and artillery shells from North Korea for use on the battlefield, CNN and other media reported at the time.
“In September, (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) publicly denied that it intended to provide ammunition to Russia,” National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby said in a statement to CNN. “However, our information indicates that the DPRK is covertly supplying Russia’s war in Ukraine with a significant number of artillery missiles, while disguising the true destination of the arms shipment by trying to make it look like it is being sent to countries in the Middle East. East or North Africa.”
Officials did not provide evidence to support the new allegations. The declassified intelligence agency also did not provide details on how many weapons are part of the shipments or how they will be paid for.
“We will continue to monitor whether these shipments are received,” Kirby said, noting that Russia continues to look to actors such as North Korea and Iran to maintain its war of aggression in Ukraine “amidst supply shortages and the effectiveness of international sanctions.” ”
American officials, however, publicly proclaimed the alleged deal as evidence that Russia was running out of weapons to continue the war.
As recently as two weeks ago, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines claimed that “export controls are forcing Russia to turn to countries like Iran and North Korea for supplies, including UAVs, artillery shells and missiles.”
Kirby said Wednesday that Iran and North Korea’s support “will not change the course of the war,” while the U.S. remained committed to providing continued security assistance to Ukraine.
But the shipments can now help Russia bolster an important part of its war effort: brutal artillery combat on the front lines.
“This could be an important development because one of the challenges for Russia has been sustaining artillery fire,” said Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, who stressed that he was unaware of the underlying intelligence. “The Russian military must have gone through millions of shells at this point.”
Russia “compensated for the manpower deficit with a much higher volume of fires,” Kofman said, a strategy he said was “probably very expensive in ammunition supplies” and left Russia, like Ukraine, scrambling in the world after the countries with the Soviet Union. caliber artillery stocks compatible with its war-sustaining systems.
In the weeks leading up to the new intelligence, some military and intelligence officials began to believe North Korea was moving away from its arms deal with Russia, multiple officials told CNN.
Some officials began touting it as a victory for the Biden administration’s strategy to selectively declassify and release some classified intelligence about Russia’s war effort, believing that in announcing the deal, the U.S. cast an unwanted light on a transaction that Pyongyang did not wanted to reveal.
But now US officials say that, despite North Korea’s denials, they believe the rogue regime has made progress with its support for Moscow as the war looks set to move into a second year.
U.S. officials have argued publicly that Russia has been forced to turn to North Korea and Iran for weapons both because it has burned through its stockpiles in a conflict that has lasted months longer than expected and because U.S. export controls and the West made it difficult for Russia to acquire the technological components it needs to restore its stockpiles.
U.S. officials have said they will work to detect and prevent shipments to Russia from Iran and North Korea and target the networks that enable those shipments, but have not specifically explained how they plan to do so.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that the U.S. military has “engaged in interdictions” of weapons shipments in the past, but declined to say whether the interdictions are considered arms flows to Russia.
New intelligence that Russia is acquiring artillery shells from North Korea suggests its shortage runs deeper than just the more sophisticated, precision-guided munitions that U.S. and Western officials have long highlighted as a weak point in Russia’s arsenal. It also extends to basic artillery.
“The Russians, by many accounts, are really weakened when it comes to some of these inputs that they need to prosecute their war against Ukraine,” Price said on Tuesday, pointing to export controls and sanctions that have caused Russia to lose inputs to making certain weapons.
The exact status of Russia’s stockpile of conventional ammunition is not publicly known, but Russia is “firing tens of thousands of rounds a day,” said Adam Mount, director of the Defense Posture Project at the Association of American Scientists, who specializes in North Korea. “They’re hungry for ammunition wherever they can get it.”
Over the summer, Russia managed to make major advances in parts of Ukraine with a punitive artillery campaign. But since then, Western-supplied artillery has contributed to Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive, which has recaptured large swathes of territory previously held by Russia.
North Korea could probably provide Russia with 122- or 152-millimeter artillery shells and either tube artillery or multiple-barrel artillery that would be compatible with Russian systems, said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea analyst who is now at the Heritage Foundation .
But for now, it’s unclear how effective North Korea’s artillery shells will be against Russia on the battlefield.
In 2010, North Korea fired 170 122mm shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. Less than half of them hit the island, and about a quarter of them failed to detonate—a high failure rate that “suggests that some of the artillery munitions produced in DLR Korea, especially the rounds (multi-barrel projectiles), were due to poor quality control during production or that storage conditions and standards are poor,” says a 2016 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The last time they used these systems, it turned out that their systems were quite inaccurate,” Mount said. “You would expect that as these Soviet-era systems age, they will start to break down.”
This has been updated with additional reports.