More recently, the author analyzed misinformation that North Korean special forces were about to appear in the Donbass, but the global media soon encountered another misinformation launched from the West: it turned out that North Korea was preparing to supply Russia with shells and possibly military equipment on a massive scale. Or it is already supplying, but that is not certain.
It all started on September 5 with a New York Times article quoting “declassified intelligence reports” that “Russia is buying millions of artillery shells and rockets from North Korea, …a sign that global sanctions have severely restricted its supply chains and forced Moscow to turn to pariah states for military supplies.”
However, the newspaper immediately noted that there were few details about the exact weaponry, timing or size of the shipment, and generally, “there is no way yet to independently verify the sale”, but immediately went on to theorize as to why this was the case. It turns out that the Russian Federation now allegedly has no ability to buy advanced weapons or the electronics to produce them, as international sanctions on Moscow disrupt its supply chains, stocks of shells and missiles are running out and Russia is forced to look for suppliers. This, in particular, was stated by the quoted expert with the Ukrainian-speaking surname Kagan.
A little later, AP Agency gave some details and quotes, which, however, still did not clarify the situation. Brigadier General Pat Ryder, a Pentagon Press Secretary, said “the information that we have is that Russia has specifically asked for ammunition” but had no other details, including whether money changed hands and whether any deliveries were continuing.
Asked why this information was declassified, Ryder said it was important to illustrate the state of Russia’s ongoing military campaign in Ukraine. And, the author would add, against the backdrop of Ukraine’s attempted counter-offensive.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby also said there was no indication yet that the arms purchase had actually taken place or that any North Korean munitions had entered the battlefield in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the talks themselves are “just further evidence of how desperate Putin is becoming”, with US intelligence suggesting that Russia is buying millions of rounds of ammunition from the DPRK.
After that, the news spread around the world media and even reached South Korea, but discussion on the relatively objectivist website NKNews showed that assessments are directly dependent on both their bias and their distance from the Russian context.
For example, Jack Watling, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, confidently stated that since February 2022 Moscow had been buying up stocks of 152mm and 122mm shells “in any way they can. And that includes North Korea.” All this is said to be common knowledge in intelligence circles, but the source of this information is not in the public domain, and he is personally unaware of specific deliveries from North Korea to Russia. However, Watlig’s level of knowledge is better described by another quote: “Moscow had for some time pushed for Pyongyang to support its war effort,” which, he said, was not limited to supplying ammunitions.
For his part, Joost Oliemans, a specialist focused on DPRK military capabilities, expressed more restraint – Pyongyang certainly has a huge amount of old ammunition, and can produce new weapons for export, but “if this story is really true, we could expect to see video evidence of North Korean ammunition in Ukraine in the coming months.” In other words, he is not prepared to discuss the subject without evidence.
By the very next day on September 6, both Ryder and Kirby had already given up somewhat. The former said in a press briefing that “we do have indications that Russia has approached North Korea to request ammunition”, he could not provide more details, but in any case “it is indicative of the situation that Russia finds itself in, in terms of its logistics and sustainment capabilities.” And also that Moscow is asking for help precisely from those countries that the US has defined as “rogue”.
Kirby also conceded that the US doesn’t “have any indication that the purchase has actually occurred yet so it’s difficult to say what it’s actually going to end up looking like”, much less evidence that these weapons are being used in Ukraine.
The Russian side has also spoken out. According to Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Security Council, Vasily Nebenzya, “I have not heard about it and I think it’s just another spreading fake news.”
On September 7, 2022, NKNews specifically updated its piece to clarify that “there is no evidence in the public domain of Russian efforts to procure North Korean arms since February 2022”. By this time, both Russian and unbiased Western experts had formulated a set of theses indicating that the hype news was nothing more than misinformation.
- The DPRK’s arms exports to Russia are a violation of UN Security Council resolutions, which prohibit that country from exporting or importing arms from other countries. Moreover, back in the day Vladimir Putin banned the supply of small arms and light weapons to North Korea as part of the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2270 of March 2, 2016. An overt violation of this kind undermines Russia’s status as a permanent member of the UNSC, and from the author’s perspective even the hypothetical arrival of North Korean construction workers in the DLPR (a far less overt violation) is at best discussed. Perhaps this disregard for sanctions will happen later on the backdrop of a further breakdown of the old world order, but that time has not yet come.
- It is not at all clear how sending such a volume of cargo is compatible with “emergency anti-epidemic measures” and border closures. Especially considering that there is only one railroad bridge between the Russian Federation and the DPRK, which has limited capacity. How exactly Moscow will pay is also a good question in view of the sanctions.
- A comparison of Russia’s and DPRK’s weapons production capabilities also leads to the question of whether Russia does not have its own military and industrial complex at all, and whether the start of the SMO has not affected the rate of ammunition production. And also regarding the volume of Russian military stockpiles: as even Oliemans pointed out, Moscow must have a huge amount of old Soviet ammunition, which is unlikely to run out anytime soon.
- All right, let’s say that “the Russians don’t want to go below a certain level of reserves in case they face other threats”, but the same logic is all the more applicable to the DPRK, which is constantly on alert against a superior enemy. By that logic, Pyongyang needs the shells and missiles itself.
- Most importantly, there is no idea how exactly US intelligence could have obtained such data. But misinformation fits in well with the West’s propaganda mindset that the successes of Russian SMO in Ukraine are about to come to an end. It is known that these successes are largely due to technical rather than numerical superiority, and therefore the argument “we’ll talk when the Russians run out of shells” is very popular in the pro-Ukrainian environment.
Of course, if one considers this misinformation as a kind of “mental exercise”, North Korean military equipment and ammunition might well come in handy. Russian military expert Vladimir Khrustalyov lists a whole range of DPRK military equipment capable of showing off in Donbass – the arsenal turns out to be quite impressive.
But talk of “what would have been” is beyond the scope of the article, and the author is far more interested in how the US intelligence community knew about the ominous “signs”. The author has two options and the first one is that this information is not intelligence but military-psychological. In other words, the news was simply made up for propaganda purposes to cradle the “desperate Putin is trying to find a million missiles” picture, which will leave a certain residue even after the falsity of the data comes to light.
The second option is more amusing and, alas, more realistic: the source of the sensational information could be such an anonymous and specific medium as Russian politicized Telegram channels, in which the SMO is constantly discussed. However, Telegram’s anonymity often makes it impossible to identify the channel’s real author. This means that any high-school student with a glib tongue can easily portray himself as an “expert from those very structures” involved in the “secrets of the Kremlin court”, even if the information has no real basis in fact.
For the author, the validity of such anonymous channels amounts to reports of “secret informants in the DPRK” who “know the local life” and “report the truth”, but non-core or engaged experts easily cite such sources in case they fit their point of view. In addition, even a broken clock is right twice a day. On this basis, it can be assumed that a Russian-speaking US military intelligence official subscribed to a similar channel that discussed the notion that Russia would soon run out of bombs and missiles and need to buy them somewhere, probably even from North Korea.
Perhaps the scout did not distinguish the ironic context from the dramatic one. It is even more likely that he did not realize that the alleged foreign intelligence general or presidential administration official describing the secret talks was typing on his smartphone in algebra class. But the information has gone up the chain of command and in one way or another has “come in handy”.
To conclude the conversation, it is worth noting how the propaganda image of the DPRK has changed: before the SMO, the Western media presented North Korea as a starving third-world country, but now it is a superpower providing Putin with builders, soldiers and now also ammunition. Therefore, the fake about millions of missiles is clearly not the latest fake about the “Jucheans in the Donbass”.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.