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Relations between Russia and North Korea continued even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has arrived in Russia on 12 Sep 2023 to see President Vladimir Putin. The relationship further improved after the visit of a Korean delegation led by Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui visited Moscow on 15 Jan 2024.

In a provocative move that heightens geopolitical tensions, North Korea has announced it has supplied Russia with no less than 6,700 containers carrying over 3 million artillery shells. According to several concurring sources, this would be the largest ever shipment of arms and ammunition sent by Pyongyang to Moscow since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.  

This massive delivery of North Korean shells, 10 times higher than the cumulative donations of European countries to Ukraine, comes at a critical time for Russia. Vladimir Putin’s army is indeed facing significant ammunition shortages on the Ukrainian front, limiting its ability to carry out sustained strikes against Ukrainian positions.  Some experts estimate that the stock of shells provided by Pyongyang could allow Russian forces to maintain intense shelling for 1 to 2 months. Enough to give them a second wind in a war of attrition that is bogging down and has already claimed tens of thousands of victims on both sides.

On the North Korean side, this massive logistical support to Russia is part of a strategy of re-approchement with Moscow in the face of Western pressure. Subject to heavy international sanctions because of its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs, North Korea is relying on its alliance with Russia to counter American influence in the region.  

A Provocation

For Washington and its European allies, this military reinforcement of Russia by North Korea sounds like a real provocation. It comes just days after the highly publicized visit of the US Vice President Kamala Harris to South Korea, during which she visited the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.  The North Korean operation thus seems a clear message to the Biden administration: Pyongyang remains determined to support Moscow at all costs in the face of Western countries, risking heightening tensions on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.

In an initial official reaction, the spokesman for the White House National Security Council denounced “reckless behavior that undermines global peace and stability.” The delivery of munitions by North Korea is also likely to increase pressure on Seoul and Tokyo to step up their military aid to Ukraine.

Supply of Anti-Aircraft Defenses Next  

But Pyongyang’s military assistance to Russia may not stop at simple artillery munitions. According to several Russian state media, negotiations would also be underway for North Korea to supply Russia with more sophisticated military equipment, such as 270 mm caliber shells capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads. According to the well-informed Russian sources, North Korean air defense systems, such as the Pantsir S-1, could also make their way to the Ukrainian front in the coming months. This would help reinforce Russia’s aerial “umbrella” in the face of drone and missile attacks by the Ukrainian army.

It remains to be seen whether the above information is part of the psychological warfare and disinformation characteristic of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict… Or if Kim Jong-Un’s regime is actually preparing to defy the international community once again by directly meddling in this war on Europe’s doorstep.


The announcement of the delivery of ammunitions and air defence systems has heightened the tension in the region and further complicates the global geopolitical situation in Europe and the West.

Title Image Courtesy: The Japan Times

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

By William Favre

William Favre is a researcher in international relations of Asia with a focus on Korean studies, graduated from Seoul National University