Though it is a truism, when supplies run dry, war becomes arduous. Russia’s war with Ukraine is no exception. Without heavy artillery shells, there can be no artillery fire – what Joseph Stalin infamously termed the “God of War”. Without rockets and anti-tank missiles, Russia cannot take aim at Western-supplied tanks to Ukraine. With the pariah state having few global friends, Putin knew that Moscow did have one partner-in-crime, a state equally intent on inflicting belligerence to the West, and who would do anything for cash.
Turning towards Russia’s Cold War client nearly 4,000 miles away, North Korea could not refuse Russia’s overtures. We must remember that in 2014, Putin wrote off 90% of North Korea’s Cold War debt to the Soviet Union, amounting to over $11 billion. Thus far, the servant is satisfying his master.
Last December, Russia’s infamous paramilitary group, the Wagner Group, obtained heavy North Korean weaponry for the battlefield. Unphased by the volte-face of Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in June this year, North Korea’s ammunition kept flowing in Moscow’s direction, as cash flowed into the heart of Pyongyang’s coffers. The cash-for-weapons story is only just beginning.
It’s no coincidence that Kim Jong Un’s first overseas trip in four years was a gruelling twenty-hour train journey to Russia, to meet a fellow violator of international rules. Despite an inefficient, cash-strapped economy, Kim remains adamant to expand the scope and sophistication of North Korea’s ballistic and cruise missiles. Also on Kim Jong Un’s wish-list is food and refined technology for satellites and nuclear-armed submarines, especially since any time soon, Pyongyang’s last satellite will crumble out of orbit.
North Korea may also get a commitment from its senior partner to oppose any future sanctions resolutions on the hermit kingdom at the United Nations Security Council, a marked shift from Russia’s previous support of UN sanctions on the North’s nuclear programme. To obtain these benefits, the North will provide a stream of low-tech ammunition. But is the deal as good as it sounds?
Quantity is not always quality. For all the millions of artillery shells and rockets North Korea has provided – and will provide – to Russia, their questionable manufacture and performance may be to the detriment of Putin’s central strategy in Ukraine, namely large-scale artillery fire. The dubious quality of North Korea’s weaponry, which frequently comprises modified versions of Soviet armaments, will be well-known to the Russian military.
Only on Saturday, when, prior to celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the country, North Korea revealed an as-of-yet untested nuclear-armed submarine. It was hardly surprising that it was none other than a modified, outdated Soviet vessel.
Not all ammunition is good ammunition. Whilst North Korean artillery shells may replenish existing short-term deficiencies in Russia’s stockpiles, their inaccurate and imprecise performance, flight, and lack of quality control in manufacturing may soon become a long-term hindrance to Putin’s war efforts. If Russia wants to continue pursuing an artillery strategy against Ukraine’s slow but hitherto successful counter-offensive, then relying on Pyongyang is far from wise.
The friendship between Kim Jong Un and Putin’s confidant, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu could catalyse a worrying blossoming of horizontal weapons proliferation. For all their technological deficiencies, Russia is not going to refuse munitions, and if Pyongyang’s immediate financial interests are satisfied, this partnership of convenience will endure.
Nevertheless, it is too early to say if a new “axis of evil” is emerging between Pyongyang, Moscow, and Beijing. For now, the interests of all parties, not least North Korea, seem transactional. What is more, for a new axis to emerge, China, whose investment Putin will hope to gain at this week’s Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, will need to break its silence on the summit.
So long as Russia’s war continues, the two rogue states of Russia and North Korea will continue in their determination to achieve their own longer-term victories: reunification of the Korean Peninsula and reunification of Russia. But Kim alone will not be able to win Putin’s war. After all, he has his own unfinished war to fight.