First on CNN: US accuses North Korea of trying to hide ammunition shipments to Russia
The US accuses North Korea of secretly supplying Russia with artillery shells Ukrainian war by concealing where they are being transported, according to newly discovered intelligence.
U.S. officials believe the secret North Korean shipments — along with drones and other weapons Russia has acquired from Iran — are further evidence that even Moscow’s conventional artillery arsenals have dwindled during the eight months of fighting. North Korea is trying to hide the shipments so it looks like the ammunition is being sent to countries in the Middle East or North Africa, intelligence officials say.
The recent intelligence comes about two months after the U.S. intelligence community said it believed Russia was in the process of buying millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for use on the battlefield. CNN and other media reported at the time.
“In September, (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) publicly denied that it intended to provide ammunition to Russia,” National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby said in a statement to CNN. “However, our information indicates that the DPRK is secretly supplying Russia’s war in Ukraine with a significant number of artillery shells, while disguising the true destination of the arms shipments by trying to make it appear as if they are being sent to countries in the middle region. East or North Africa.”
Officials have not provided evidence to support the new allegations. The declassified intelligence also did not provide details on how many weapons were part of the shipments, or how they would be paid for.
“We will continue to monitor whether these shipments have been received,” Kirby said, noting that Russia has continued to look to actors like North Korea and Iran to maintain its war of aggression in Ukraine “amid supply shortages and the effectiveness of international sanctions.”
American officials, however, publicly touted the alleged deal as evidence that Russia was running out of weapons to continue the war.
Two weeks ago, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines claimed that “export controls are forcing Russia to turn to countries like Iran and North Korea for supplies, including drones, artillery shells and missiles.”
Kirby said Wednesday that Iranian and North Korean support “will not change the course of the war,” and the U.S. remains committed to providing ongoing security assistance to Ukraine.
But the shipments could now help Russia bolster an important part of its war effort: fierce artillery combat on the front lines.
“It could be a significant development because one of the challenges for Russia is sustaining artillery fire,” said Michael Kofman, director of the Russian Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, who stressed he was unaware of the underlying intelligence. “The Russian military has probably gone through millions of shells at this point.”
Russia was “compensating for manpower shortages with a much higher firepower,” Kofman said, a strategy he said was “probably very expensive to supply ammunition” and left Russia, like Ukraine, scouring the world for countries with Soviet – stocks of artillery of calibers compatible with its systems to sustain the war.
In the weeks before the new intelligence was received, some military and intelligence officials began to believe that North Korea was reneging on its agreement to supply Russia with weapons, multiple officials told CNN.
Some officials have begun to hail it as a victory for the Biden administration’s strategy to selectively declassify and release some classified intelligence about Russia’s conduct of the war, believing that when the United States announced the deal, it shed unwanted light on a transaction that Pyongyang did not want disclosed. .
But now, US officials say that, despite North Korea’s denials, they believe the rogue regime has moved forward with its support for Moscow as the war appears poised to enter its second year.
U.S. officials have publicly argued that Russia was forced to turn to North Korea and Iran for weapons both because it burned through its stockpiles in a conflict that lasted many months longer than expected and because U.S. and Western export controls made it difficult to Russia would acquire the technological components it needs to replenish its own supplies.
U.S. officials have said they will work to detect and counter shipments to Russia from Iran and North Korea and target the networks that enable these shipments, but have not made explicit how they plan to do so.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that the U.S. military has “participated in interdiction” of arms shipments in the past, but declined to say whether the ban was being considered as an arms flow to Russia.
New intelligence that Russia is acquiring artillery shells from North Korea suggests its shortages run deeper than just more sophisticated, precision-guided munitions, which US and Western officials have long stressed is a weak point in Russia’s arsenal. It also extends to basic artillery.
“The Russians, by many accounts, are really exhausted when it comes to some of those inputs that they need to prosecute their war against Ukraine,” Price said on Tuesday, pointing to export controls and sanctions that have starved Russia of inputs to make certain weapon.
The precise state of Russia’s stockpile of conventional munitions is not publicly known, but Russia is “burning through tens of thousands of rounds a day,” said Adam Mount, director of the Defense Posture at the Federation of American Scientists, who specializes in in North Korea. “They are eager for ammunition wherever they can get it.”
Over the summer, Russia was able to make significant advances in parts of Ukraine through a punishing artillery campaign. But since then, Western artillery has contributed to Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive that has recaptured large swaths of territory previously held by Russia.
North Korea could likely provide Russia with 122- or 152-millimeter artillery shells and tube or multi-barrel launchers compatible with Russian systems, said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea analyst. now at the Heritage Foundation.
But for now, it’s unclear how much impact North Korea’s artillery shells will have on Russia on the battlefield.
In 2010, North Korea fired 170 122-millimeter shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. Less than half hit the island, and of those, about a quarter failed to detonate—a high failure rate that “suggests that some DPRK-produced artillery munitions, particularly rounds (multiple rocket launchers), suffer from either poor quality control during production or that conditions and storage standards poor,” according to a 2016 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The last time they used these systems it showed that their systems were pretty inaccurate,” Mount said. “You would expect these Soviet-era systems to age and start to break down.”
This has been updated with additional reports.
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