Give and Take: the Purpose of Shoigu's Visit to North Korea, It's Not Just About Ammunition

russian minister of defense Sergei Shoigu arrives in North Korea / Photo source: KCNA
russian minister of defense Sergei Shoigu arrives in North Korea / Photo source: KCNA

russia's defense minister would not go to North Korea with quite a lengthy visit just to ask for more ammunition, especially if the russians are in dire need of particular weapons they lose daily

Minister of defense of the russian federation Sergei Shoigu has arrived in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The official pretext of the visit is to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement signed on July 27th, 1953. The visit lasts for three days, July 25-27 with a traditionally big military parade on the last day.

Taking into account there were not many trips by russian officials to Pyongyang overall – only a single visit by president Putin in 2000, while for Shoigu this is his first – the occasion bears a certain level of significance.

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Shoigu takes part in festive ceremonies in North Korea
Shoigu takes part in festive ceremonies in North Korea / Open source photo

The main question is, what exactly Shoigu came for and what he brought to North Korea to offer. This country remains one of the few actively supporting the Kremlin in its war of aggression against Ukraine and was caught red-handed supplying weapons to russia midst of this war.

At the same time, North Korea has seen quick progress in missile armament projects recently. For example, Pyongyang has been very vigorously and apparently successfully testing its new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile which was created in a relatively short time. Wouldn't be out of place to note how back in Soviet times Kremlin was helping the Korean nuclear program as well.

Hwasong-17 ICBM / Photo source: KCNA

It's not just weapons (including ready-made solutions) russia's helping DPRK with. There is also broader financial support. In 2014, Moscow forgave 90% of Pyongyang's debt. Grain, oil, and other products flow into North Korea from russia without restrictions.

But more important is what Kremlins wants back for all its "investment", and that is what Shoigu's visit is for. The need for weapons is the first thing that comes to mind, and North Korea already partially had it covered by providing ammunition.

DPRK is a huge artillery arsenal, it has over 21,600 howitzers of calibers 122mm, 152mm, 170mm, and 5,000 multiple rocket launch systems on top, mostly in 122mm caliber, standard for BM-21 Grad launchers.

North Korean artillery on the military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, 2022
North Korean artillery on the military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, 2022 / Photo source: KCNA

With that many artillery systems, a proper quantity of shells is on par. North Korea has already sold 250,000 rounds. Given the estimated price of USD 1,000 per shell, it amounts to almost 1% of the whole country's GDP of income. And there should be heaps of artillery rounds left on top of that, although the exact numbers and their condition is unknown, as most of the ammunition was produced in the times of the USSR.

But just expanding the current supplies doesn't seem like a good reason for Shoigu to pay a visit, all the more because North Korea itself has a big interest in selling out the aging arsenals. On the other hand, acquiring whole weapons might need a visit with a few days' stay to show the product to the customer.

It becomes especially relevant due to the rapid decrease in artillery systems russian army suffers in Ukraine. For instance, since the early days of summer this year, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have destroyed 583 pieces of russian artillery already, according to the data provided by Ukraine's General Staff. This issue calls for Kremlin to act.

In addition, it's important to consider the weariness of barrels, as it has a significant impact on the real number of combat-capable howitzers. That's why Defense Express assumes, the purpose of the russian defense minister's visit to North Korea is not only to negotiate ammunition but a provision of artillery systems as well. The transfer of those, though, would be not as easy to disguise as it was with the shells.

Furthermore, russia might be interested not in artillery alone but in any other piece of armament for land forces, too. In return, Kremlin can offer more cooperation in developing missile and nuclear arms projects, handing over entire technologies or various goods: oil, grain, etc.

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