North Korea and Russia have made headlines in recent days with reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is likely to travel to Russia to meet with its president, Vladimir Putin.
The expected meeting would follow a recent visit to North Korea by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. During his trip, Shoigu toured North Korean arms factories. This has led many to opine that if Kim visits Russia, one of the key issues under discussion will be continued arms sales to the Russians for the prosecution of their war against Ukraine.
If Kim does in fact visit, several issues will likely feature in his talks with Putin. The North Korean economy is in dire straits. Decades of bad economic practices, combined with excessive spending on the military and on lavish lifestyles for the elite, have dragged down the economy. The effects of sanctions that impede at least some of Pyongyang’s illegal and illicit trade add to the difficulties. Thus, the two sides are likely to discuss economic issues, as well as other ways the pariah states can work together.
But the focus of much commentary on the reported meeting is Pyongyang’s sale of arms, particularly ammunition, to Russia. Moscow continues to struggle with supply chain issues as the war in Ukraine shows no sign of ending soon. Pyongyang will also likely want to get foodstuffs and resources (largely oil and natural gas) as part of any new deal.
Old Systems, Still Useful
Why is Russia looking to North Korea for arms, and what would these sales consist of? In the time since North Korea began supplying the Wagner Group, it appears many of its arms sales have consisted of ammunition, primarily for artillery platforms such as the 152mm system, and for multiple rocket launchers such as the 122mm and perhaps the 107mm systems. They may have provided various other small arms and ammunition to the Wagner Group, but specifics remain unconfirmed.
The systems and ammo the North Koreans have supplied are all old, 1960s-era Soviet weaponry. But the Russian army is a blunt instrument, not a force using precision weapons for the most part. That means these systems are very useful for Russian forces slogging it out on battlefields, particularly in Eastern Ukraine.
It is also important to note that the factories in North Korea that build the systems and produce the ammo were originally installed by the Soviets. These systems are thus fully compatible with the systems Russia is using today in Ukraine.
Finally, a prevailing line of commentary holds that while North Korea may have millions of shells and a lot of equipment in storage, many of these platforms are old, and they might perform poorly in combat. This is true, in part. North Korea does keep millions of shells in storage. But the North Koreans also have factories that actively produce new combat systems, and munitions factories that produce millions of shells annually. So to say these weapons and ammo might break down because of age is probably not accurate.
Since the Russian defense minister has already visited North Korea and toured its arms factories, and since it appears likely Kim will now make a rare trip to Russia, it seems the Russians will want to make deals to purchase even more systems and ammo. These could include a plethora of small arms, more artillery and rocket systems, and even tanks and armored personnel carriers that are patterned on Soviet design and based on very old technology.
The North Koreans never offer something for nothing, so what would they want in return?
What North Korea Wants
A common view is that North Korea will likely want technical assistance for its military in return for the purchase of its arms. This is also probably true in part. North Korea is also likely to demand badly needed resources such as oil and natural gas, as well as foodstuffs. But if this is the start of a long-term relationship, as seems to be the case, the North Koreans will want more. Why do I say that? Because the evidence leads me to assess that the Russians are already providing military technical assistance to North Korea.
In 2020, in a joint U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce North Korean Missile Procurement Advisory, the statement read, “On January 24, 2018, OFAC designated ten Korea Ryonbong General Corporation representatives based mainly in China and Russia, including one official identified as the vice consul of the North Korean consulate in Nakhodka, Russia, underscoring the key role that North Korean diplomats and foreign-posted North Korean procurement representatives play in sanctions evasion and ballistic missile-related procurement. North Korean officials accredited as diplomats to one country have also been detected attempting to acquire sensitive technology in neighboring countries.”
In February 2022, the State Department identified still more assistance from Russians to the North Koreans, stating that, “Between at least 2016 and 2021, O Yong Ho worked with Russian entity Parsek LLC and Russian national Roman Anatolyevich Alar, the director for development of Russian firm Parsek LLC, to procure multiple goods with ballistic missile applications, including Kevlar thread, aramid fiber, aviation oil, ball bearings, and precision milling machines controlled by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Roman Anatolyevich Alar also provided O Yong Ho with instructions for creating solid rocket fuel mixtures.”
Further, does anyone really think that the North Koreans came up with their copy-cat of the Iskander missile, as well as their latest hypersonic missile technology, on their own? Those systems, and the designs and technical assistance for them, came from somewhere. Russian technical assistance or even proliferation to the North Koreans is not new.
What the North Koreans will most likely want from the Russians is thus more than just technical assistance. Pyongyang probably wants the assistance already coming in to increase in capabilities and largesse. In return, Russia will continue to get an unending supply of ground combat systems and ammo that are largely old in design, but still effective. We can also expect to see North Korea increasing the capabilities of such systems as ballistic missiles and long-range artillery and rockets. If this happens, it will be a significant deal for both governments.
About the Author and His Expertise
Dr. Bruce E. Bechtol, Jr. (Ph.D. Union Institute), is an award-winning professor of political science at Angelo State University and a retired Marine. The author of five books on North Korea, he is also the current President of the International Council on Korean Studies. He specializes in North Korean military and counter-proliferation issues. Bechtol is a 19FortyFive contributing editor.