In pouring rain, a jubilant crowd waving pompoms and flowers greeted the Russian foreign minister as he stepped on to the airport asphalt in Pyongyang.
While the heavily choreographed welcoming scenes were a familiar sight in totalitarian North Korea, Sergei Lavrov’s rare visit to the country came amid mounting evidence that Pyongyang has started to provide artillery rounds to Russia, opening up a supply line that could have profound implications for the war in Ukraine.
This month, the US said as many as 1,000 North Korean shipping containers bearing “equipment and munitions” had been sent to Russia “in recent weeks”.
The White House released satellite imagery revealing what it said were approximately 300 containers assembled in Najin, a port in north-east North Korea, and delivered via sea and rail to a depot near Tikhoretsk in south-west Russia, about 180 miles from the Ukrainian border.
US intelligence reports have been corroborated by the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), a London-based thinktank that last week published a report that concluded: “Russia has likely begun shipping North Korean munitions at scale.”
Analysing high-resolution satellite images, Rusi said three Russian cargo vessels linked to the country’s military had been sailing between the North Korean port of Rajin and the secretive port facility in Dunai, in Russia’s far east, making at least five round trips beginning in mid-August.
The thinktank said the ships first set sail a few weeks after the Russian defence ministry, Sergei Shoigu, travelled to North Korea and was shown the latest models of the country’s weaponry by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Since then, Kim has travelled to Russia’s far east and offered Vladimir Putin his full support for Moscow’s “sacred fight” against the west.
Shortly after the Kim-Putin summit, the Beyond Parallel project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies thinktank in Washington analysed separate satellite images that it said “captured a dramatic and unprecedented level of freight railcar traffic at North Korea’s Tumangang rail facility”, which is located on the border with Russia.
“The level of rail traffic is far greater than what Beyond Parallel has observed at the facility during the past five years, even compared with pre-Covid-19 levels,” its report said. “Given that Kim and Putin discussed some military exchanges and cooperation at their recent summit, the dramatic increase in rail traffic likely indicates North Korea’s supply of arms and munitions to Russia.”
The Kremlin has repeatedly rejected western accusations that it was buying North Korean weaponry and ammunition.
Artillery has been seen as crucial for Ukraine and Russia in the conflict to date, with some analysts calling it the “king of battle” despite a focus on newer, hi-tech weapons.
“If confirmed, North Korea’s supplying of significant quantities of munitions to Moscow could have profound consequences for the war in Ukraine,” said Joe Byrne, a research analyst at Rusi. “Russia wouldn’t be going to the North Koreans if they did’n’t have to … For the Russians, a major North Korean supply line will alleviate their munition hunger.”
Maj Patrick Hinton, an artillery officer in the British army and recent visiting fellow at Rusi who closely studies the war in Ukraine, said North Korea had a large stockpile of artillery shells and rockets that were compatible with the Soviet and Russian weapons systems being used by Moscow.
He said North Korea probably transferred two types of munitions used by Russia in the war – Soviet-era 122mm howitzer rounds and 122mm Grad rockets.
“Despite sanctions, North Korea has the ability to manufacture a lot of ammunition and has amassed significant stockpiles. This is something they have prioritised,” Hinton said.
The US has not specified the number of artillery pieces it believes North Korea has transferred to Russia.
Col Ants Kiviselg, the head of military intelligence in the Estonian defence forces (EDF), estimated that the 1,000 sea containers reportedly shipped to Russia held a total of 300,000-350,000 artillery pieces.
“Considering that the daily consumption of artillery ammunition by the Russian troops is 10,000 pieces, this amount would be enough to last around one month,” he said at a news conference last Friday. “The supplies from North Korea indicate that Russia plans to continue its war in Ukraine for a long time and is taking concrete steps towards doing so.”
Questions remain with regards to the quality of the munitions being supplied by Pyongyang.
In 2010, the North Korean army fired about 170 shells at Yeonpyeong, South Korea, of which more than half fell in the waters around the island.
Hinton said poorly made ammunition would have an “inconsistent performance”, but given the very large numbers involved, a lack of precision and the occasional misfires would not make a massive difference. “Quality becomes quantity in itself,” he said.
Meanwhile, Moscow has been expanding its domestic missile production beyond prewar levels. Putin has made military production one of Russia’s priorities, raising defence spending in 2024 to nearly 6% of gross domestic product, after a 3.9% increase this year and 2.7% rise in 2021.
Last month, Russia’s biggest weapons producer, the state-owned Rostec, said production volumes for various types of weapons had increased between two and 10 times.
“For Russia, the supply of strike munitions is increasing. In October 2022, Russia was producing approximately 40 long-range missiles a month. Now it is producing over 100 a month,” wrote Jack Watling, a senior research fellow for land warfare at Rusi, in a recent report entitled Ukraine Must Prepare for a Hard Winter.
“The lack of a breakthrough in Ukraine’s summer offensive and the shift in materiel advantage mean that Kyiv must fight carefully if it is to retain the initiative.”