Procurement: Notorious North Korean Munitions


December 23, 2023: South Korea collects a lot of useful intelligence on North Korea and keeps a lot of those secrets to itself. This is a common practice to prevent the target from discovering your sources or any other details of how you obtain information. With that in mind, the export of large quantities of 152mm artillery shells to Russian forces in Ukraine revealed a lot of data on the poor quality of North Korean munitions and why North Korean munitions continue to ship shabby shells. The North Koreans are still following Soviet-era production rules which emphasize quantity over quality. Worse, quality has a low priority while fulfilling the assigned production quota is most important. Still worse, North Korean standards for producing anything are well below Russian standards.

All this became clear since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine war proved both sides required more artillery ammunition, more than either side had available. Ukraine obtained additional ammo from NATO countries. This was mostly 155mm shells, which Ukraine could only use in the new 155mm artillery systems that NATO provided. The NATO shells were built using demanding quality standards. That meant these 155mm shells were more reliable and accurate.

Russia had few sources for more 152mm shells and one of those sources was North Korea, which had a munitions manufacturing industry. Emergency orders from Russia took all the shells North Korea had stockpiled for a possible future war and led to North Korean artillery munitions factories working round-the-clock to meet the demand. Naturally quantity took priority over quality. These new shells had one advantage; they had not suffered from deterioration from spending too many years in a warehouse.

North Korea quickly supplied Russia with about a million 152mm artillery shells. There were rumors that many of the North Korean shells were elderly and, according to South Korean intelligence, often unreliable as well. That turned out to be true. All this was available to the Russians who either ignored it or were desperate to get the 152mm artillery ammunition. When the North Korean munitions arrived in Ukraine and Russian troops began using the shells, they noted two things. First, that North Korean ammunition was unreliable and inaccurate. It was later discovered that the North Korean shells could also be dangerous to use. Some of the shells detonated immediately 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. All this was great for North Korea because they unloaded their older artillery munitions at a good price and are replacing it with newly manufactured shells. The new shells are probably no improvement because Ukrainian experts examined the 152mm munitions, including the propellent pack that contain the gunpowder that propels the shell out of the howitzer. The North Korean powder was found to be defective in terms of quality and quantity. That meant inconsistent range for shells in the same batch. Western 155mm powder packs are more consistent in quantity and quality. Especially for each batch of shells so that each batch of shells has the same quality. That means the shells will travel the same distance with the same reliability.

Using newly manufactured munitions solves a common problem with Russian munitions, especially artillery and mortar shells as well as unguided rockets. Normally, Russia stores its munitions for a long time before they are used. This means deterioration and unreliability after too many years sitting in a warehouse or bunker. The shelf life of most artillery munitions varies from 5-20 years, depending on the component: shell case, fuze, 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 and eventually uses the older munitions that are often dangerous for the gun crews. 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 common for Russian gun crews during the Ukraine War and will continue until Russia and North Korea run out of older artillery munitions.




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