North Korea Sends Ammunitions to Russia

On November 2, 2022, the United States condemned North Korea for transferring arms to Russia for its illegitimate war effort in Ukraine. The U.S. statement came nearly two months after a New York Times report that North Korea was providing millions of artillery shells and rockets to Moscow. At that time, North Korea denied the claims.

National Security Council (NSC) coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said U.S. intelligence “indicates that the DPRK is covertly supplying Russia’s war in Ukraine with a significant number of artillery shells, while obfuscating the real destination of the arms shipments by trying to make it appear as though they are being sent to countries in the Middle East or North Africa.” While the White House did not provide any further details about North Korea’s recent shipments, Kirby also stated that Russia’s outside support from Iran and North Korea is “not going to change the course of the war” and the U.S. government will continue to monitor whether these shipments will reach Russia.

Q1: What is significance of this White House statement?

A1: Kirby’s statement suggests that the United States will watch the shipments but will not intercept them given that the NSC does not believe it will impact the war significantly. While information is scarce, this assessment also suggests that the earlier report of “millions” of artillery shells may be overstated. The Biden administration may wish to avoid a military interception and possible conflagration with North Korea as it is already engaged in Ukraine and seeks to focus attention on the strategic challenges posed by China, as noted in the National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS) released in 2022. At the same time, the NSC probably authorized the publicizing of the information to make clear to the international community about North Korea’s bad behavior, which lays the groundwork for UN action, if needed, in the future.

Q2: Should the United States be surprised by these actions by North Korea and Russia?

A2: The actions are not surprising, but they are disappointing. This news is significant in several respects. First, North Korea’s horizontal weapons proliferation is nothing new. They have sold just about every weapons system they have ever developed. This does not bode well for the multitude of long-range ballistic missile testing by North Korea this year, as they will likely sell these missiles to willing customers once they have perfected the design.

Second, North Korea is clearly using the Ukraine war to tighten its relations with Russia. The country was one of the first to recognize Russian gains in the Donbas region. North Korea also seeks to draw Russia and China close, particularly when U.S. relations with either country are under stress, as they are today. Parenthetically, North Korea becomes most concerned when U.S.-China or U.S.-Russia relations are good or improving because there is constant paranoia of a big power deal that would leave Pyongyang abandoned by Beijing or Moscow.

Third, in addition to getting cash on the barrel, North Korea may seek debt forgiveness for the arms transfers. The North Koreans have historically looked for debt relief from Russia going back to the days of Boris Yeltsin (who did not provide it). If so, the arms transfer would be a business decision rather than a strategic one.

Fourth, the shipment of arms to Russia via the Middle East or Africa suggests that the Covid-19 lockdown in North Korea, now almost 34 months old, is either being relaxed, or exceptions are being made for the export of goods.

Q3: What can be done about this?

A3: The United States has the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capacity to track these North Korean ships. To avoid any military altercations, U.S. authorities could coordinate with willing countries to detain the cargo at customs to prevent their making it to the battlefield.

Actions through the UN Security Council on these arms transfers will be difficult given the Russian veto. Moscow’s defense against these accusations was to accuse South Korea of arming Ukraine through third parties. The Yoon government has tread very carefully regarding the provision of lethal equipment to Ukraine for fear of upsetting South Korea’s relations with Russia.

Finally, the Yoon government should consider arming Ukraine in earnest. Russia has already sanctioned South Korea for joining multilateral sanctions against it, and now, it is already accusing Seoul of doing so. Thus, the Yoon government should go ahead and provide such support to the besieged country as requested by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in his speech to the South Korean National Assembly in April 2022.

Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair