(Bloomberg) -- North Korean weaponry could allow Russia to prolong the storm of steel it has rained down on Ukraine but probably isn’t advanced enough to alter the course of the Kremlin’s war on its neighbor, now well into its second year.
Leader Kim Jong Un is expected to cross into Russia this week for his first trip outside the peninsula in four years for talks with President Vladimir Putin. The US has said the meeting would focus on supplying munitions to Moscow.
While Pyongyang and Moscow have denied US accusations of arms transfers, North Korea sits on some of the largest stockpiles of artillery and unguided rockets that could be used in the Soviet-era weaponry Russia is using to launch indiscriminate attacks on Ukraine.
“Supplies of ammunition from North Korea are unlikely to be decisive in the short term but will make it easier for Russia to continue a war of attrition,” said Terence Roehrig, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College.
“A significant part of Putin’s strategy is an assessment that Russia can outlast Ukraine and the West’s support that is essential to Ukraine’s survival. More ammunition allows Putin to continue this strategy,” he said.
Seeking military aid from North Korea would mark a reversal for the two states. The Soviet Union was the biggest backer for Pyongyang after it was formed 75 years ago and supplied it with weapons that were essential in its invasion of South Korea at the start of the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Discussions between Pyongyang and Moscow over North Korea providing further military support for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine are actively advancing, a senior NATO official said Monday. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited in July to request deliveries of munitions and Kim expects to continue those discussions, the official said. The meeting between the Russian and North Korean leaders isn’t expected to take place before Tuesday, the official added.
North Korea provided munitions, including infantry rockets and missiles, to the Wagner Group when they were still active in Ukraine but the equipment delivered so far hasn’t changed the battlefield dynamics in Ukraine, the official said.
But allies are concerned North Korea is planning to deliver more arms, the NATO official said. Their visibility on the quality and quantity of North Korea’s weapons and munitions stocks is constrained so the volume and quality of what North Korea could provide is an open question, the official said.
Munitions from North Korea could buy time for Russia, giving its domestic industry a chance to catch up with demand.
“Adding North Korea to the list of arms suppliers in the war would aid in gap filling munitions and other weapons systems that Russia’s own arms producers are having a hard time filling,” said David Schmerler, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
He added the move to turn to North Korea for military aid “might be indicative of struggles to maintain production at home.”
Some North Korean items likely on Putin’s wish list would be 122 mm and 152 mm artillery rounds as well as 122 mm rockets. Heavily sanctioned North Korea doesn’t have access to technology that would allow it to mass produce any sort of precision guided weapons. It does have stocks of anti-tank missiles and surface-to-air missiles, but its arms may not be much of a match to some of the newest weapons the US and its NATO partners have been sending to Ukraine.
North Korea is also one of the few countries with ample stocks of Soviet-era tanks of the sort Moscow has deployed in Ukraine, such as the T-54 and T-62, and it could supply spare parts, according to weapons expert Joost Oliemans, who co-authored the book The Armed Forces of North Korea.
Some North Korean weapons may have already been seen on the battlefield. Ukrainian artillery crews have been firing rockets made in North Korea against Russian positions, the Financial Times reported in July. The weapons made in the 1980s and 1990s were “seized” from a ship by a “friendly” country, it cited Ukrainian soldiers as saying. Ukraine’s defense ministry suggested the rockets were taken from Russian forces.
The New York Times reported Kim may be seeking technology from Russia that would help him build a nuclear-powered submarine and deploy spy satellites.
North Korea may also be trying to procure sensitive data on arms by hacking its Russian partner, according to a report this month from Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence unit.
The report said hacking groups, such as one named Ruby Sleet (CERIUM), breached an aerospace research institute in Russia in March. A separate report last month by Sentinel Labs said North Korean hackers tried to get information from a leading Russian manufacturer of missiles and military spacecraft.
While both countries oppose the current rules-based international order, their immediate security concerns are quite different, according to Naoko Aoki, an associate political scientist at the Rand Corp. in Washington.
“For Russia, the biggest focus right now is of course the war in Ukraine,” she said. “North Korea is focused on what it views as the need to deter regime-changing actions by the United States, while also maintaining the more ambitious goal of unifying the Korean Peninsula on its own terms.”
--With assistance from Natalia Drozdiak.
(Updates with remarks by NATO official from seventh paragraph)
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