(CNN) — The United States accuses North Korea of secretly supplying a significant amount of artillery shells to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine, and of trying to hide the shipments by pretending that the ammunition was sent to countries in the Middle East or North America, Africa, according to recently declassified intelligence reports.
U.S. officials believe North Korea’s secret deliveries, along with drones and other weapons Russia has acquired from Iran, are further evidence that even Moscow’s conventional artillery stockpile has dwindled during the eight months of fighting.
The shipments come about two months after U.S. intelligence reports said they believed Russia was in the process of buying millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for use on the battlefield, according to reports reported by CNN and other media outlets at the time.
“In September, the People’s Republic of North Korea (NPRK) publicly denied that it intended to deliver munitions to Russia,” National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby said in a statement to CNN.
“However, our information shows that the RPCN is secretly supplying a significant number of artillery shells for Russia’s war in Ukraine, while hiding the actual destination of the weapons shipments by trying to make them appear to be delivered to countries in the Middle East and East and North Africa,” he added.
Officials did not provide any evidence to support the new charges. The declassified intelligence reports also do not provide details on how many weapons were part of the shipments or how they were paid for.
“We will continue to monitor whether these shipments have been received,” Kirby said.
Russia is trying to rebuild its artillery
However, US officials have publicly presented the alleged deal as evidence that Russia is trying to maintain its weapons stockpile to continue the conflict.
Just two weeks ago, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines asserted that “export controls are forcing Russia to look to countries like Iran and North Korea for supplies, including drones, artillery shells, etc. and missiles.”
North Korea’s shipments, however, could help Russia bolster an important part of its war effort: frontline artillery engagement.
“It could be significant because one of the challenges for Russia has been sustaining artillery fire,” said Michael Kofman, director of the Russian Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, who stressed he was not aware of the intelligence report. “The Russian military has probably used millions of shells at this point.”
Russia was “compensating for the manpower shortage by producing much more firepower,” Kofman said, a strategy that was “probably very expensive in terms of ammunition supply” and left Russia, like Ukraine, traveling the world in search of countries with Soviet-compatible supplies. weapons to guarantee the continuation of the war.
In the weeks leading up to the new intelligence reports, some military and intelligence officials began to believe North Korea was reneging on its arms deal with Russia, several officials told CNN.
Some officials began hailing it as a victory for the Joe Biden administration’s strategy to have Russia selectively declassify and release classified wartime information, believing that when the U.S. disclosed the deal, it revealed a transaction that Pyongyang did not want known.
Now, however, US officials say that despite North Korea’s denials, the rogue regime has continued its support for Moscow as the war appears to be entering its second year.
U.S. officials have publicly argued that Russia was forced to turn to North Korea and Iran for weapons because it had depleted its stockpile in a conflict that dragged on for months longer than expected, and because U.S. and Western export controls have made it very difficult for Russia to acquire technological components she needs to restock.
“They’re eager to get ammunition from anywhere they can get it”
New intelligence that Russia is acquiring artillery shells from North Korea suggests their shortage goes beyond more sophisticated precision-guided munitions, long considered a weak point in Russia’s arsenal. On the contrary, the difficulties would include basic artillery.
“The Russians, in many ways, are really running out of some of the supplies they need to continue the war against Ukraine,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday, pointing to export controls and sanctions that have deprived Russia of materials to make certain weapons.
Russia’s stockpiles of conventional ammunition are not publicly known, but they are known to “use tens of thousands of rounds a day,” said Adam Mount, director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, which specializes in North Korea. “They’re eager to get ammunition wherever they can get it.”
Over the summer, Russia made some progress in parts of Ukraine through a fierce artillery campaign. But since then, independent artillery provided by the West has contributed to the successful push of a Ukrainian counter-offensive, allowing Kiev to recapture large swathes of territory.
North Korea is likely to supply Russia with 122- or 152-millimeter artillery shells and tube or multiple-barrel rocket launchers compatible with Russian systems, said Bruce Klingner, a former Korea analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, now at the Heritage Foundation.
However, it is not clear how much impact North Korean artillery shells will have on Russia on the battlefield.
In 2010, North Korea fired 170 122-millimeter shells at Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea. Less than half hit the island, and among them about a quarter failed to detonate. This is a high failure rate that “suggests that some artillery ammunition was produced in the RPCN, particularly the rounds [de lanzacohetes múltiples]suffer from poor quality control during production or poor standards and storage conditions,” according to a 2016 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The last time they used those systems they proved to be pretty inaccurate,” Mount said. “One would expect these Soviet-era systems to age and begin to fall apart.”