Unconventional Alliance: Russia turns to North Korea for War supplies in Ukraine


After a year and a half of fighting in Ukraine, Russia needs to replenish its supplies of ammunition for what could be a long war of attrition. Along with ramping up its domestic arms production, Moscow is turning to an old ally with a vast arsenal — North Korea.Estimates say the reclusive and isolated Asian country has tens of millions of artillery shells and rockets that could give a huge boost to the Russian army.
United States officials expect North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to visit Russia in the coming days to seal a possible deal on munitions transfer with President Vladimir Putin. That would be a remarkable reversal from the 1950-53 Korean War, when the Soviet Union provided the communist North with weapons and ammunition. “We know that Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has visited recently for artillery shells predominantly, and most likely that will be discussed between Putin and Kim Jong Un,” said Alexander Gabuev, head of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre.
Shoigu became the first Russian defense chief to visit North Korea since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Images of him at a massive military parade in the capital of Pyongyang in July, alongside Kim and the medal-laden North Korean military brass, was a strong sign of a vigorous effort by Moscow to reach out to the North. Shoigu said joint military drills were possible. Asked about a possible visit by Kim and a deal that would see North Korean arms supplies to Russia, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to comment. But he emphasised that Moscow cherishes ties with Pyongyang, adding: “North Korea is our neighbor, and we will further develop our relations without looking back at other countries’ opinion.”
Kim made his first visit to Russia in 2019 and held talks with Putin that included pledges of closer cooperation but weren’t followed by any visible breakthroughs. While the bulk of the Korean People’s Army arsenals are dated, their enormous size would offer the Russian military a potential key lifeline amid Europe’s largest land conflict since World War II.
Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification, said Russia could seek to establish North Korea as a “rear base” for its war efforts, providing a massive flow of munitions. “Russia is hoping that North Korea could swiftly establish support channels to provide it with war materials like ammunition, bombs and other supplies,” Hong said.
The US said North Korea sold some munitions to Russia’s private military contractor, Wagner, in November. Both Russian and North Korean officials have denied that Pyongyang has shipped any weapons or munitions to Russia or intends to do so. US officials have cast Moscow’s reach for North Korean weapons as a reflection of Russian military problems.