White House Claims Pyongyang Supplying Large Quantities of Artillery For Ukraine War: Russian-North Korean Rail Lines Reopen

The White House officially announced on October 2 that the United States had intelligence that North Korea was supplying significant quantities of artillery shells to the Russian Military. This followed prior claims by official American sources in August that such acquisitions were being pursued by Russia, and indications from Russian sources that North Korean artillery could soon bolster the country’s war effort in Ukraine. White House National Security spokesperson John Kirby stated regarding the development: “Our indications are that the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – North Korea’s official name] is covertly supplying and we are going to monitor to see whether the shipments are received.” “It’s certainly not going to change our calculus … or with so many of our allies and partners about the kinds of capabilities we’re going to continue to provide the Ukrainians,” Kirby added, with the possibility of economic sanctions in response to the sales being raised at the time. He highlighted that Russia’s acquisitions were a sign of the limitations the country’s defence sector was facing to support the war effort. 

North Korea currently fields the largest artillery force in the world, and although some of its larger calibre weapons are too big for Russian guns many of its artillery pieces are of the same calibers as those in the Russian Army. Whlie the Soviet Union had a productive capacity for arms far exceeding that of North Korea, the sharp contraction in Russian industry after 1991 means North Korea may well be able to produce artillery rounds at a greater or comparable rate, and has for decades retained very large reserves. Artillery has played an increasingly central role in the Russian-Ukrainian War since it began in February, with NATO supplies to the Ukrainian Army also increasingly strained as many NATO member states seriously deplete their own reserves to keep Ukrainian guns stocked. 

Pyongyang was alleged to be laundering its artillery through Middle Eastern and African countries so as to conceal its origins before transfer to Russia, possibly in order to allow Moscow to deny it had acquired them from North Korea due to its prior commitment to a UN arms embargo against the East Asian state. The country has been an important arms supplier to several countries in both regions despite Western successes in imposing an arms embargo through the UN in the 2000s. Ethiopia, Uganda, Libya, Eritrea, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Iran have been among its key clients. 

Allegations of North Korean arms sales notable came hours after it was confirmed that Russia was reopening major rail lines into North Korea, which if the White House’ claims were confirmed could provide an effective means of moving Korean-supplied weapons to the Ukrainian frontlines quickly. The possibility of North Korea supplying other kinds of armaments to Russia, ranging from ballistic and cruise missiles to battle tanks or rocket artillery systems, cannot be ruled out. For years facing the most stringent economic sanctions regime in history, Western threats to impose further sanctions are not expected to deter Pyongyang. Supplies to Russia serve the dual purposes of further straining U.S and Western forces, which are increasingly active in Ukraine, and of earning foreign currency which could help compensate for a small part of the economic damage caused by existing sanctions.