Artillery Shells: One Eerie Reason the U.S. Is Terrified of Russia’s New Friend North Korea

North Korea's massive but secretive military-industrial complex and stockpiles of conventional artillery ammunition have raised alarms about potential illicit exports to Russia for its war in Ukraine.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

The Western media has regularly reported that North Korea allegedly assists Russia, notably by sending artillery shells. They also provided the amount of shells supplied—and it is in millions.

According to the West, Moscow requires artillery rounds and missiles, which Pyongyang possesses. As early as September 2022, the White House accused North Korea of selling shells to Russia. In the year following Kim Jong Un’s visit to Russia, Washington reported that North Korea had transferred over 1,000  containers of weapons to Russia. However, neighboring Korea was dissatisfied with such low numbers. The South Korean Ministry of Defense reported that 10,000 containers were transferred to Russia. In February, CNN claimed, citing South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik, that North Korean ammunition factories are working at full capacity. According to the minister, weapons and military ammunition, including millions of shells, are being shipped to Russia in return for food and other necessities.

Both Moscow and Pyongyang have denied any military-technical cooperation. Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared on June 19 that Russia is open to the possibility of establishing military-technical cooperation with North Korea in conjunction with the Strategic Partnership Agreement that was signed on the same day.

Leaving aside the propaganda games, it is significantly more interesting to figure out whether North Korea, which has been under severe sanctions for decades, has truly grown its military industry to the point where it makes the West nervous.

North Korea’s military-industrial complex is so restricted and secretive that it is hard to measure production volumes precisely. They can only be described as big, but the exact size is a challenge to quantify. Even Western experts’ estimations of shell output volumes vary by nearly an order of magnitude. Furthermore, there are enormous mobilization capabilities.

According to current estimates, North Korea’s artillery shell production capacity ranges from several hundred thousand to several million shells per year.

North Korea is isolated not only in terms of military production but also in general. It isn’t easy to learn anything about it. Several companies are located underground, and even satellite reconnaissance can provide little concrete information.

There is one more significant factor. North Korea has massive mobilization capabilities that are not currently in use but can be unleashed at any moment. This enables a significant expansion in the manufacture of shells, artillery guns, and other weapons as needed. Of course, these mobilization capabilities are primarily intended for war, but who knows? These mobilization capabilities may be deployed if Pyongyang secures a lucrative export contract with another country.

Overall, it is estimated that North Korea can create millions of shells each year if necessary. This would necessitate the deployment of mobilization capabilities. Without this, they could likely produce several hundred thousand shells every year.

Their range of shells is pretty similar to what the Russians make. They recently began switching to NATO-caliber 155mm artillery. That suggests their new self-propelled artillery systems already have a 155 mm caliber. However, the majority of its tube artillery is of Soviet or Russian calibers (122 mm, 130 mm, and 152 mm). The most popular multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) are analogs of Russia’s 122 mm “Grad.” They have their own methods for more advanced MLRS. They have 240 mm and larger installations. The North Korean army boasts a unique 600 mm MLRS that has no counterparts. This is effectively an operational-tactical missile system with a range of approximately 400 kilometers. The launcher may accommodate 4-6 rockets, depending on the type of shell. They may be fired in salvo mode.

As a result, the United States has legitimate concerns about the rapprochement between Russia and North Korea. First and foremost, the hermit kingdom has massive stocks of weaponry and ammunition for a large-scale conflict. For decades, North and South Korea have prepared for total conflict, including the use of weapons of mass destruction. North Korean stockpiles are huge. They maintain and store old weapons. They have massive arsenals of shells and other artillery. There’s a lot there, which is why the West is so concerned.

North Korea is one of the few countries with significant military and industrial capacities. The country has long prioritized mass production while being behind the curve in terms of superior technology. The most important factors in a large conflict are quantity, mass manufacturing, and cost-effectiveness. It is preferable to produce a million conventional shells rather than 10,000 pricey, sophisticated ones. For instance, the US and NATO countries established a shell fund for Ukraine with the purpose of delivering 800,000 shells to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. So far, they have acquired only approximately 180 thousand shells around the world.


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