A new concern on the Ukrainian battlefield: North Korea's latest missiles

As the war approaches its second anniversary, the Russians are beginning to deploy North Korean weapons, compounding Ukraine’s problems as it continues to wait for new air defenses from the United States.

When Russia turned to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un for help in its war with Ukraine, he came with a huge shopping list that included a million artillery shells to fire at Ukrainian troops entrenched in ditches across the country. South and east, and dozens of North Korea’s latest, barely tested missiles.

Now, those weapons are beginning to appear, deeply worrying U.S. and European officials who say they fear that the North’s munitions could prove important on the battlefield at a time of enormous vulnerability for Ukraine.

Although many of the North Korean artillery shells are proving useless – some appear to have been manufactured decades ago – they are giving the Russians something to fire at Ukrainian forces, who are rationing their own dwindling supplies. European countries promised Ukraine a large replenishment, but so far, it seems that they have only been able to obtain about 300,000 artillery shells.

But it is the missiles that are of most concern, from the Pentagon to NATO headquarters in Brussels. In interviews, several officials said they fear the Russians hope to use the missiles to overwhelm Western air defenses. Although the number of missiles transferred so far is small, probably less than 50, American and European officials believe there could be many more.

And unlike artillery shells, North Korea is not sending its oldest material. An analysis by Conflict Armament Research, an organization that has documented weapons used in Russia’s war in Ukraine, showed that the missiles being provided to Russia are more recent in design. And U.S. officials say the missiles are proving to be as accurate as Russia’s domestically-made equipment. Three volleys of North Korean-made missiles targeted Ukrainian positions around the new year, U.S. officials say, and they believe they were used more on the battlefield on Sunday.

In South Korea, officials and analysts say the Ukraine war is giving the North something it desperately needs: a testing ground to see how its new missile arsenal, designed for a conflict with South Korea and the United States, performs. Against air defenses designed by the West.

The turn toward North Korea, as the war approaches its second anniversary, reflects Russia’s own struggle to keep up with the pace at which both sides are depleting their weapons stockpiles. Russia has also turned to Iran for drones and is also reportedly seeking Iranian missiles, although there is no evidence it has obtained them yet.

Most of the missiles fired at Ukraine are still manufactured in Russia. But if North Korea increases its supply, Ukraine could be forced to fire precious rounds of air defenses, a development that could be devastating for Ukraine if Congress does not approve additional military funding, U.S. officials said. The imports have especially alarmed top NATO members, who have declined to speak publicly but say they are concerned that the infusion of North Korean weapons could prove especially problematic at a time when Ukraine is uncertain about when or from whom it will receive its next supplies.

For now, the air defenses hold out. Last Tuesday, Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, the top U.S. commander in Europe, told Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III that he believed the Ukrainian military had enough air defenses to survive the winter, two senior U.S. officials said.

But if North Korea increases its missile shipments and Congress does not approve additional aid, that calculus could change.

Russia has already obtained several dozen North Korean missiles and hopes to acquire more. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said he planned to visit North Korea soon, according to North Korean state media. Russia has fired North Korean missiles into Ukraine at least three times since late December, including attacks on December 30, January 2 and January 6.

The missiles add to a steady stream of artillery shells, up to a million rounds, that North Korea has agreed to send to Russia. But the quality of those projectiles is bad. Some have exploded inside Russian cannons, and many of the rest have fallen harmlessly in unpopulated areas.

However, quantity does matter on the battlefield. Last summer, Ukraine was firing up to 7,000 artillery shells a day and had managed to damage Russia’s ammunition supplies to the point that it was firing about 5,000 shells a day, according to American and other Western analysts. Now, the Ukrainians strive to fire 2,000 rounds a day, while Russian artillery, augmented by North Korean shells, reaches about 10,000 a day, according to analysts.

Still, U.S. officials are far more concerned about North Korean missiles.

After the first salvo, Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, began working on an intensified effort to rally international support by condemning the arms transfer and attempting to increase pressure on North Korea to stop supplying the missiles.

U.S. officials believe that at times since the start of the war in Ukraine, U.S. revelations about North Korean shipments have caused Pyongyang to stop or delay new transfers.

The Russian transfers come at a critical time in the war in Ukraine, as American support hangs by a thread, subject to intense political debates on Capitol Hill. Ukraine’s ammunition needs will be one of the main topics of a virtual meeting of Kyiv’s allies on Tuesday, which Austin will chair.

The United States has supplied Ukraine with countless air defense systems and ammunition. And U.S. officials have said those systems — including Patriot batteries — have proven capable of cushioning damage from Russian missile attacks.

However, U.S. officials said that to provide more air defense systems and munitions, Congress needs to pass an additional aid package.

U.S. officials say Ukrainian air defenses are a critical area of ​​concern. After initial setbacks due to Western sanctions, Russia has rebuilt its industrial capacity and stockpiled missiles. But if Russia gets even more North Korean missiles, it will be able to overcome Ukrainian defenses more easily.

“Ukrainians continue to be attacked,” National Security Council spokesman John F. Kirby said Wednesday. “They continue to be subject to artillery shells, airstrikes, ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as drone attacks by the Russians.”

It will be difficult for the United States to stop those additional shipments. In recent days, North Korea has adopted a more belligerent stance in its foreign policy. It has declared that it will no longer seek reconciliation with the South, leading some experts to speculate that the country is trying to provoke a new conflict, although the evidence for this is, at best, fragmentary. However, there is no doubt that it has focused on strengthening its ties with Russia.

However, the nature of the renewed relationship is unclear. Russia promises a range of technologies in exchange for the North’s ballistic missiles, including aircraft and advanced technological know-how. However U.S. officials do not believe Russia has yet provided additional ballistic missile weaponry or technology.

David E. Sanger