Korean Artillery Duel in Ukraine: Two Koreas Now Arming Opposing Sides with New Shells

The United States is working to organise the acquisition of 100,000 155mm artillery shells from South Korea to equip the Ukrainian Military, according to unnamed U.S. officials familiar with the deal. Amid growing strain on both Russia’s and Ukraine’s ammunition supplies, and with the stockpiles of NATO member states after several months of supplying Ukrainian guns, the United States and its allies have looked increasingly widely for sources of ammunition to arm Ukraine. This has included acquisitions from Pakistan, and provision of seized Iranian ammunition, although South Korea has always been seen as a particularly promising supplier due to the massive size and high quality of its artillery forces and the country’s very large stockpiles and productive capacity. While Seoul has officially refrained from arming either side in the ongoing war, consistent Western pressure has led it to agreed to a deal to supply the United States with artillery rounds in the knowledge that these are being purchased to supply Ukraine. While Seoul can thereby avoid arming Kiev directly, this is nevertheless expected to have a negative fallout for its relations with Moscow.

Official U.S. sources have claimed repeatedly that North Korea is arming Russia with large quantities of its own artillery rounds, supplementing supplies of drones and ballistic missiles from Iran to aid the Russian war effort, although both Pyongyang and Moscow have denied this. Claims of North Korean involvement in the war may well have softened Seoul’s unwillingness to make arms transfers to bolster Ukrainian forces. South Korea’s defence sector has benefitted considerably from the outbreak of open hostilities in Eastern Europe, with its very large productive capacities and its NATO-compatible products’ multiple significant advantages over Western rivals making it an attractive supplier for European states on the frontlines. This included a $13 billion deal signed in July to supply Poland with tanks, howitzers and lightweight FA-50 fighter jets under, followed by $6 billion deal in October to supply K239 Chumoo rocket artillery systems. 

While the two Koreas field two of the world’s largest artillery forces to face one another, the relatively low possibility of a major war on the Korean Peninsula could well mean that the largest duels using the two countries’ artillery rounds may instead take place in Ukraine. Should large scale North Korean supplies to Russia be confirmed, and potentially be followed by other kinds of assets such as rocket artillery, it would likely guarantee that the ongoing conflict is highly profitable for both East Asian states. 155mm rounds are the largest being produced by South Korea, and are compatible with the large quantities of new Western howitzers which have been supplied to Ukraine by NATO members Britain, Germany, Poland, France, the United States, Slovakia, Estonia and Italy. While North Korea produces much larger 170mm rounds for its longer ranged guns, these are two large for Russian howitzers meaning any supplies will likely be relegated to 152mm calibres or lower.