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Kim’s gunrunning is a blessing in disguise and opportunity for Kyiv’s allies?

By Liang Nah - posted Monday, 9 October 2023

During Kim Jong-un's first post pandemic summit with Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Eastern Russia on 13 September, Kim reaffirmed Pyongyang's support for Putin's invasion of Ukraine, expressing that this war was a "righteous endeavour", while expressing the willingness to "stand with Russia against imperialism". Hence, it does not take a stretch of the imagination to infer that the Kim regime would be willing to ship a portion of its sizeable stockpile of Soviet compatible artillery shells, short ranged unguided rockets and even mortar ammunition to the Russian army. Indeed, there is precedence for such behaviour since North Korea previously sent a relatively small consignment of infantry rockets and missiles, during the latter half of 2022, to the Russian Wagner private mercenary company fighting at Moscow's behest in Ukraine. Essentially, both Putin and Kim have shown the willingness to blatantly disregard the UN Charter (by invading Ukraine) and UNSC resolutions (by illegally exporting munitions and/or arms) respectively. Hence, the shipment of armaments from the North to Russia is a foregone conclusion.

But instead of bemoaning the prolonging of Putin's dreadful war in Ukraine, the West and Ukraine's other allies should perceive this as a blessing in disguise. Specifically, the infusion of DPRK war materiel to the Russian military could provide the opportunity to expedite decisive weapon deliveries to the Ukrainians, helping the latter win significant victories on the battlefield.

Giving the Ukrainian army all the artillery it needs


If irrefutable evidence if found that the Kim regime has refreshed the Russian Army's artillery shell stocks, and/or shipped missiles and new weapon systems to the Russian military, this would provide a modified casus belli (Latin for occasion for war) justifying the substantially ramped up shipment of vital munitions to Ukraine and more importantly, the introduction of newer long range high precision armaments to help the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), gain the strategic edge versus the occupying Russian forces.

With the less than stellar accuracy of Russian artillery only being able to achieve fire objectives via "accuracy through volume" as attested to by the heavily cratered and devasted Ukrainian land captured by Russians, it should be noted that the impending infusion of North Korean artillery munitions will not improve the quality of the Russian arsenal. Specifically, such ammunition exhibits dubious reliability and performance, due to excessively long storage. As such, it would be foolish to quantitatively compete with the occupying force, and the Ukrainian Army's suppliers should instead cement the latter's qualitative edge.

Even as conventional non-guided artillery shells should still be sent to Ukrainian units, who nonetheless optimize their accuracy using reconnaissance/spotting aerial drones, the West in general and the U.S. in particular should bolster deliveries of M982 Excalibur (GPS and inertial guided) 155mm howitzer shells, while initiating shipments of the shorter ranged laser guided M712 Copperhead 155mm howitzer munition, M1156 precision guidance kits to turn normal 155mm shells into precision guided projectiles, and GPS guided 120mm XM395 mortar shells. These will give the Ukrainian ground forces precision strike capabilities at ranges of up to 7km for mortars, 16km for the Copperhead munitions, 24km for the M1156 upgraded shells and up to 50km for the Excalibur if fired from the Krab self-propelled howitzers operated by Ukraine. Consequently, army field commanders will have the ability to reliably eliminate targets of immediate tactical consequence, objectives behind current Russian positions, and even bases/facilities in supposed rear areas deemed safe from non-guided artillery projectiles, giving Ukrainian ground forces much needed operational momentum.

Tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and glide bombs

In the event that Pyongyang elects to send more than just unguided ageing surplus ammunition to Moscow, Kyiv's war plans could be further complicated. Specifically, online reports indicate that the Kim regime intends to send KN-09 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) firing 300mm calibre rockets with a 220km range, as well as smaller numbers of KN-25 MLRS units firing 600mm calibre rockets at ranges exceeding 400km.

To deal with this eventuality, preserve the tactical balance of power and give the AFU a fighting chance of liberating more strategically significant land, both France and the UK should refill Ukrainian stocks of SCALP/Storm Shadow air launched cruise missiles, while the U.S. ought to expedite the delivery to the Ukrainian Army of as many rocket boosted Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDBs) as it possibly can. These weapons are crucial to Ukrainian hopes of eventual victory because it enables the AFU to strike high value targets within the 150km (GLSDB) to 250km (SCALP/Storm Shadow) range envelope, thereby complicating already bad Russian logistics by forcing the placement of supply depots much further from the frontlines, and jeopardizing the existence of high-ranking theatre commanders and essential bases, crippling Russian command and control capabilities. Evidence of the Storm Shadow's efficacy can be seen in the most recently successful strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol on 22 September, and the de facto destruction of a submarine and landing ship in Crimea several days earlier.


As for tactical ballistic missiles, such weapons would enable the Ukrainian army to reach even further. It has been reported that the Biden Administration is finally willing to send Ukraine the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) which can be fired out of M142 and M270 MLRS launchers that the Ukrainian Ground Forces already possess. Such missiles have a range of 306km and are precision guided, meaning that Russian occupiers on the vast majority of Ukrainian territory can be targeted and decimated, eliminating any psychological perception of security that real echelon Russian troops previously felt. Moreover, if Ukrainian airbases and/or bomber aircraft are ever crippled or destroyed respectively, the Ukrainian Air Force (UAF) would lose the ability to launch Storm Shadow/SCALP cruise missiles, which would strengthen the relevance of ground launched ATACMS for preserving the AFU's offensive abilities. Washington should not drag its feet on this issue.

Western aircraft carrying western missiles

Due to the steady attrition of UAF fighter planes and the relative technical superiority of the Russian Air Force (Voenno-vozdushnye sily Rossii, VVS using Russian acronyms), Kyiv has been pleading for donations of Western fighter aircraft since 2022. That the VVS has not been able to impose air superiority over Ukrainian airspace thus far is due to the sheer number of Ukrainian surface-to-air armaments enforcing airspace denial upon the Russians. However, if the UAF is ever to regain rightful control over its own airspace, and render any foreign assistance to the Russians (from the DPRK, Iran…etc) inconsequential, the UAF will have to be reinforced with modern, capable Western aircraft fitted with current air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.

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About the Author

Liang Tuang Nah is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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