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Russia Might Be Buying North Korean Arms. But Are They Reliable?


FILE - A North Korean flag flutters in North Korea, in this picture taken inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, July 19, 2022.

North Korea and Russia may be natural partners for the type of weapons sale alleged by U.S. officials this week, but the possible unreliability of some North Korean arms presents a complication for Russia’s military, defense analysts warn.

U.S. officials on Tuesday claimed Russia is in the process of purchasing “millions of rockets and artillery shells” for use in Ukraine, where Moscow is six months into a war that appears to have reached a bloody stalemate.

The sale has not been independently confirmed. Many details are unclear, including whether the weapons have already been transferred. On Tuesday, a Russian diplomat rejected the U.S. allegation as “fake.” But such a transaction in many ways would make sense.

Russia has exhausted vast quantities of weapons in Ukraine. According to an independent estimate by Russian defense analyst Pavel Luzin, Russia could be on pace to run out of artillery shells by the end of the year.

'A logical alternative'

With international sanctions complicating domestic weapons production, Russia may view North Korea as a logical alternative to replenish its stockpiles.

North Korea has a wide range of both newer, advanced missile technology and older, simpler artillery systems based on Soviet designs. Though U.S. officials have not specified the type of weapons Russia will receive, most analysts assume North Korea will be interested in selling its older shells.

Not only does North Korea have a very large stockpile of such artillery, but much of it is also compatible with Russian military systems, according to Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at the arms transfers program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

“Exporting even large quantities to Russia is thus likely no problem for [North] Korea,” Wezeman told VOA.

Seemingly unreliable and ineffective

Some North Korean artillery appears to be unreliable and ineffective, though. As an example, many defense experts cite North Korea’s 2010 shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island during a flareup in tensions.

According to South Korean military estimates, the North fired about 170 shells using a 122 mm multiple rocket launcher, or MRL. Fewer than half of them hit the island; of those, about 25% failed to detonate.

“This high failure rate suggests that some [North Korean]-manufactured artillery munitions – especially MRL rounds – suffer from either poor quality control during manufacturing or that storage conditions and standards are poor,” a report at the time by 38 North, a U.S.-based site that monitors North Korea, said.

Joseph Dempsey, research associate for defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, agrees that the Yeonpyeong incident provides a valuable data point about North Korean munitions, but he is reluctant to use a single example to draw too many definitive conclusions.

“There are a lot of variables at play here. In terms of reliability there are the manufacturing standards of the projectiles, their age and how well they are stored. In terms of accuracy, whilst hopefully manufactured to fly true, these are unguided projectiles, so a lot falls onto the launcher, the proficiency of the crew and other external factors,” Dempsey told VOA.

“While I certainly have some doubts about North Korean stockpiles and domestically produced 122mm rockets given the factors raised above, those same factors and doubts are also present – to some degree– with those already in Russia,” he added.

Especially early in the war, U.S. officials claimed Russia was experiencing high rates of weapons failure, sometimes exceeding 50% for certain types of precision-guided missiles

However, even flawed weapons can prove effective if you have enough of them, said Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia.

“With ammo, quantity has a quality of its own,” said Kofman, who is also a senior adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Lower quality doesn’t mean 100% doesn’t work.”

Little to lose

No matter what kind of weapons Russia may buy from North Korea, the transaction would violate a 2016 United Nations Security Council resolution. The resolution, supported at the time by Russia, forbids the export of North Korean weapons “that support or enhance the operational capabilities of armed forces” of another U.N. member state

Russia and North Korea have drawn closer in recent years, especially as their relationship with the United States has deteriorated. With both countries already subject to severe U.S.-led economic and diplomatic pressure, they may feel they have little to lose by risking further U.S. ire over a weapons deal.

“Until now, Russia generally maintained that U.N. sanctions in general should not be violated, and that Russia abides by them,” Wezeman said.

“However,” he added, “this is probably a minor point on Russia’s foreign policy agenda right now.”

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