Logistical Realities Behind North Korean Weapons Shipments to Russia

By | April 04, 2023 | No Comments

The US government’s latest allegations that North Korea and Russia are coordinating to equip the latter with lethal armaments to be used in Ukraine emphasise the depth of North Korea’s food crisis this spring. But they also underscore the fact that the Korean Peninsula is not nearly as isolated from the effects of developments in Eastern Europe as post-Cold War policy analysis may have led one to believe.

Behind the connotations any such cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang would necessarily conjure up, Ukrainian military analyst Oleksandr Kovalenko highlights one very important point: the sheer logistical difficulty, if not futility, of maintaining a steady flow of armaments from the DPRK to the battlefields of Ukraine. While North Korean shells and tanks might be compatible with Russian systems, the sole direct rail link between Russia and North Korea is emerging from a long hiatus. In contrast to some reports which we have translated at Sino-NK, Kovalenko sounds a note of skepticism about North Korean military utility for Russia’s war in Ukraine.   


Translator’s disclaimer: The author of the original text spelled “Russia” with a lower case “r”, a rhetorical device occasionally used in writing in the former Soviet Union to show enmity toward another country. For the purpose of this translation – which is primarily to inform readers about an aspect of ongoing discourse about North Korean weapons supplies to Russia – the standard English capitalization of “Russia” as a proper noun has been used.


Ammunition Shipments from North Korea: It’s Not Merely About Crossing Into Russia[1]


Current messages should be taken with a certain sense of wariness on the one hand, and with a degree of steely and calculating positivity on the other.

Wariness given that Russia finds itself in a desperate situation at this very moment.

Russian occupying forces are critically short of ammunition and technology needed to continue the war in Ukraine, and, considering their resources, cannot solve this problem in a timely manner or to the fullest extent. For this reason, attracting third countries to help with this is of paramount importance, and the DPRK appears to be a most appropriate candidate for the job.

The DPRK has a considerably wide range of technology and ammunition that suits the Russian army. This is due to the fact that most of these models are Sino-Soviet technology corresponding to unified specifications.

For example, the DPRK armed forces have a wide range of Chonma-ho tanks, a local variant of the T-62. The DPRK has around 2,000 of these tanks with various modifications, in particular with 115mm 2A20 and 125mm 2A46 barrels (Songun-915 modification). That is, they possess got an adequate amount of 115mm and 125mm firepower.

The DPRK also has an extensive range of 152mm and 122mm barreled artillery that the Russian occupying forces sorely need. Besides barreled artillery, the 122mm multiple rocket launcher, a counterpart of the BM-21 “Grad,” has formidable potential.

According to the most modest assessments, the North Korean army possesses up to 10,000 mortars of various calibers (82mm, 120mm, etc.). Thus, it’s possible that North Korea could either transfer hardware itself or the corresponding cartridges that Russian occupying forces need.

Sure, the DPRK has a considerably wide range and supply of ammunition for artillery and tanks. Yet the main problem with delivering them is the fact that the only rail connection between the DPRK and Russia is the Friendship Bridge, which is but one logistical artillery.

Besides that, the DPRK is experiencing a technogenic collapse. Technogenic collapse, being the result of technical and technological degradation, has led to a state where, for example, transportation routes there are not in the greatest state, not where they can constantly run trains plying ammunition 24/7. This is simply not possible. Furthermore, North Korea doesn’t even have trains of sufficient quality to keep Russia stocked up with shipments of ammunition and technology.

We cannot rule out that Russian Railways would get involved, but would that solve the host of other problems Russia faces?

In fact, the Russian occupying forces’ current ammunition shortage in the military theater of Ukraine began to emerge not because ammunition began to run out (as that would never happen) but when the distance over which ammunition is delivered began to increase. This was the first factor signaling a growing problem.

Now, the main flow of ammunition is not coming from the Central Military District, but from the Eastern Military District. Doesn’t it extend from Ulan Ude – 6,000 kilometers from the Ukrainian border – to Ussuri, 10,000 kilometers from Ukraine? Depleting supplies combined with logistical issues exert a doubly negative effect.

In particular, North Korean ammunition will traverse this very route, more than 10,000 kilometers to Ukraine. No amount of supplies will not solve the problem of distance. However, is it possible that the amount of ammunition itself will be a determining or dominant factor?

Let’s consider that possibility.

As a purely situational example, let’s imagine a train consisting of 10 rail cars, although the last known train had all of three cars. All the same, that train could transport on average 500 tons of ammunition.

Now let’s take the example of a 152mm artillery piece. They can weigh varying amounts depending on the type, anything from 43kg to 46kg. For simplicity’s sake, imagine they weigh 50kg each. That means that one such train would contain 10 thousand pieces of artillery. Today the Russian occupying forces fire approximately 15 thousand shots a day. Does this mean that a train will drive for more than 10 thousand kilometers so that its freight can be used up in half a day? Or maybe, if they’re lucky, it could last a few days. That is, of course, as long as the supplies aren’t given a friendly “welcome” from a high-precision HIMARS or some other surprise from the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Exactly. That tells you a lot right there.

Steely optimism, devoid of emotion and based solely on dry calculation, tells us that the Russian command finds itself in a desperate situation if they’re willing to haul ammunition all the way from North Korea if only to sustain their troops’ firepower.  

For their part, such supplies won’t critically affect the situation in combat zones. They will not totally or completely solve Russia’s ongoing problem of ammunition shortages, only situationally. The same goes for technology and armaments.

Original article by Oleksandr Kovalenko. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna.


[1] Source: Oleksandr Kovalenko, “Ammunition Shipments From North Korea: It’s Not Merely About Crossing Into Russia [Поставки боеприпасов и не только из Северной Кореи в рф]” Tvezero.info, April 2, 2023, https://tverezo.info/post/170399


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