Procurement: North Korean Assistance Backfires


December 13, 2023: The war in Ukraine required more artillery munitions than either side was able to meet. The Russians had few additional sources and one of them was North Korea, which supplied about a million 152mm artillery shells to the Russians. These shipments included smaller numbers of 125mm shells for tank guns. There were rumors that many of the North Korean shells were elderly and, according to South Korean intelligence, often unreliable as well. All this information was available to the Russians who either ignored it or were desperate to get the 152mm artillery and 115mm tank gun ammunition. Russia is also using elderly T-62 tanks and their 115mm guns to provide artillery support for Russian infantry.

When the North Korean munitions arrived in Ukraine and Russian troops began using the shells, they noted two things. First, that North Korean ammunition is unreliable and lacking accuracy. After some time, it was discovered that the North Korean shells could also be dangerous to use. Some of them detonated after leaving the gun barrel and eventually some detonated while inside the barrel. At this point the Russians had to stop using the North Korean shells, which had become more dangerous for the Russians users than the Ukrainians. Meanwhile, the North Korean munitions factories were working overtime to produce new shells to replace the older ones sold to the Russians. This was a good deal for North Korea because they unloaded their older artillery munitions and were not replacing it with newly manufactured shells.

This solves a common problem with Russian munitions, especially artillery and mortar shells as well as unguided rockets. One of the problems Russia had with its large 152mm shell reserve was that the shelf life of most munitions varied from 5-20 years, depending on the component (shell, fuse, electronics, batteries, or propellant.) Mortar and artillery shells and rockets use various types of explosives, notably as propellants, that degrade over time. Western nations spend a lot of money to remove elderly munitions by recycling them. This is expensive but it is a major reason why Western munitions are more reliable and less dangerous for users.

Russia takes a different approach. They know from experience that their 152mm shells gradually become less reliable after ten or twenty years of storage. Older shells don’t function as designed. That means more shells that are inaccurate or don’t detonate. That means more duds. For shells older than 20 years there is greater risk of a shell exploding in the gun or shortly after fired. This causes death or injury to the gun crew and anyone else nearby. Senior Russian commanders consider this an acceptable risk in order to win even though the Russian gun crews have no incentive to be effective because they are concentrating on surviving the use of their own artillery and munitions. All these problems are unique to the Russian war in Ukraine.

During World War II artillery munitions were used within weeks or months of leaving the factory. When World War II ended, there was a lot of unused artillery munitions. Most of it was put into storage while some was used for training new artillerymen. A lot of the stored munitions in the Far East was used by North Korea when Russia ordered their North Korea subordinates to invade South Korea and unify Korea. The Americans had recently withdrawn the last of their World War II occupation troops in 1950 and Russia sensed an opportunity. They got the wrong scent because the Americans quickly returned with the main landing in the southern tip of Korea and two amphibious operations, one on the east coast and one on the west coast. This was more than the North Koreans could handle and the South Korean and American forces advanced towards the Chinese border. At this point Russia called on the Chinese to intervene and at least rescue North Korea. The Chinese came in, with the understanding that this settled their debt to Russia for military assistance during World War II.

The fighting in Korea went on until 1953 when both sides agreed to an armistice, not a peace treaty, and the 250 kilometers long DMZ (four kilometers wide demilitarized zone) became the border between North and South Korea. Since 1953 South Korea has become democratic, industrialized, and now has a GDP that is in the top ten of all nations worldwide. South Korea also became a major manufacturer and exporter of modern weapons. That included over ten billion dollars’ worth of weapons to NATO countries that border Russia or Ukraine. North Korea held onto its socialist ways and was misruled by the Kim dynasty. On a per capita basis, South Koreans are twenty times wealthier than the average North Korean. North Korea does have some nuclear weapons, but the Kim’s have not yet found a way to turn that into an improved standard of living for the average North Korean.

The Russian need for more munitions and other military equipment was partially paid for with Russian food brought in over the single rail line between Russia and North Korea, which connects with the Russian Trans-Siberian railroad that gets people and cargo to Ukrainian border in about eight days.




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