At their only known meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un prior to their talks at the Far Eastern Federal University campus on Russky island in the far-eastern Russian port of Vladivostok on April 25, 2019. Photo: AFP / Alexander Zemlianichenko / Pool

SEOUL – Could North Korea deploy enough combat manpower and artillery to rejuvenate Russia’s flagging fortunes in the Ukraine war?

Even by the standards of often alarmist North Korean reportage, US and UK tabloid stories that appeared over the weekend and spread like wildfire over social media were startling.

According to the New York Post, 100,000 North Korean “volunteers,” armed with “counter battery experience,” could be deployed to assist the Russian military effort in Ukraine.

The possibility, citing unreferenced reports, was raised in a state-run TV program of Russia’s Channel One by defense pundit Igor Korotchenko. Korotchenko’s segment drew a surprised smile from a fellow panelist, and expressions of some bemusement subsequently.

According to experts who spoke with Asia Times, Korotchenko’s contention is dubious for multiple reasons. Yet, at a time when a controversial “legion” of international volunteers is fighting on Ukraine’s side, the experts do not discount the story completely.

The Kremlin, with its offensive in Ukraine largely stalled for a month and apparently unwilling to send conscripts into the carnage, certainly needs more boots on the ground if it is to regain the operational initiative. It also needs a solution to Kiev’s use of high-precision, long-range artillery.

At first glance, North Korea could provide that solution: It boasts both a massive pool of trained military manpower and a formidable long-range artillery arm. And North Korea – isolated, impoverished and massively dependent upon China – appears to be using the Ukraine War to move closer politically to Russia.

The Russian Armed Forces are 900,000-strong, but Putin continues to fight the Ukraine war only with professionals and volunteers despite the urgings of hardliners to deploy the entire Russian Army, conscripts and all.

“There is a serious shortage of manpower in the Russian military and Putin is clearly afraid to formally declare war, so there are these semi-comical statements about a ‘special military operation,’” Andrei Lankov, a Russian specialist on North Korea who teaches at Seoul’s Kookmin University, told Asia Times. “He would like to do it the American way, when they invade yet another country in the Middle East, but the Americans don’t send Harvard graduates into the trenches.”

While the “vast majority” of Russians currently support the war, according to opinion polls, Lankov reckons that Putin fears his population being exposed to a brutal conflict that is currently being fought exclusively by “professionals who are paid well and come from social margins.”

A Russian soldier takes part in Belarusian and Russian joint military drills at Brestsky firing range, Belarus, onn February 4, 2022. Photo: Video screengrab / Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

These political considerations leave Putin fighting with less men than the vast size of Ukraine and its rapidly mobilizing population demand.

“Hitler also had a problem getting his country and economy on total war footing until too late,” David Park, a retired US Army officer, said. “And Japan did not conscript Koreans until 1944 – once again, too late.”

As a result, Russia’s war in Ukraine is under-manned.

“At the height of the initial offensives towards Kiev and Kharkiv, Russia was templated to have deployed up to 190,000 troops, and right now their total troop strength is lower than that,” said Park, who undertook three tours in Korea and five Middle Eastern combat deployments.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has mobilized and is training hundreds of thousands of men while receiving shipments of ever-heavier arms from the West.

Russia is currently recruiting “volunteer” battalions nationwide to join the fighting. But early expectations that 40,000 Syrians might rally to the Russian effort long ago evaporated.

Moscow’s last significant offensive ended in the first week of July, with the capture of the city of Lyschansk. Since then, its ground operations – despite some minor tactical wins in the Donbas region – have largely stalled.

Ukrainian countermoves near Izium, in the north and Kherson, in the south, are significant. While neither has delivered victory, they suggest that Kiev may be, for the first time in this war, be taking over the initiative.

So could North Korea assist Moscow to regain its footing? Lankov doubts it, firstly for optical reasons.

While Western tabloid journalism has long demonized North Korea in Orientalist fashion as a deranged state run by a family of villains, that is not too far from the popular Russian view of the country.

“North Korea has had a very bad reputation inside Russia – it is seen as a crazy Oriental dictatorship – for decades,” Lankov said. “It is kind of symbol of everything which can go wrong about a country.”

For Russia’s leadership to turn to such a state for assistance would thus raise eyebrows at home. But there is no question that it is very highly militarized.

In terms of manpower, Kim is estimated to have 1.3 million men under arms. And Park noted that with all North Koreans serving the colors for at least 10 years, its forces are likely well-trained and cohesive enough to take over an entire section of Ukrainian frontage.

“An injection of 100,000 fresh and well-trained troops would be a significant boost to Russian combat power,” he said.

However, its limited strategic horizon – the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is trained exclusively to fight on and around the Korean peninsula – means it is highly unlikely that Pyongyang could detach 100,000 men to fight effectively on the other side of the globe.  

“They are completely within their own world,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general told Asia Times of the KPA, citing lack of recent expeditionary experience.

Pyongyang deployed air force units to fight for North Vietnam in the 1960s, and military advisors to various African countries – notably as trainers of the Zimbabwean army – in the 1980s. However, it has no significant off-peninsula military experience in recent years.

Moreover, it does not conduct drills with Russia’s military – or indeed, any other nation. Hence, the KPA lacks what military professionals call “inter-operable” capabilities – in the linguistic, technical, systemic and tactical realms.

While top North Korean officers used to be sent to Moscow’s elite Frunze Military Academy, “I don’t think they do that anymore,” Chun said.

Tanks take part in a military parade in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP

While much global commentary focuses on North Korea’s strategic weapons, the KPA also fields a massive armory of the weaponry of a type that is dominating the war in Ukraine: conventional artillery, both tube and rocket launched.

The KPA’s long-range, heavy guns are believed to be deeply dug into mountainsides – a defensive practice against enemy air power that dates back to the Korean War – from where they could fire on Seoul. It is highly unlike these huge howitzers could be removed and shifted west.

“It is not easy to do that, and these are very old models,” Chun said. “The Russians have the greatest number of artillery pieces in the world, they would only be getting the same capabilities they already have.”

However, more recently, Pyongyang has been developing mobile, long-range multiple rocket systems. Some of these, such as the K9 300mm MLRS, with a reported range of 200 kilometers, outrange the US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) being used by Kiev.

HIMARS rockets are taking out Russian command posts and transport nodes far behind the front lines and are being especially effective in taking out ammunition dumps, thereby depriving Russia’s tactical artillery of munitions.

However – widespread reportage to the contrary – the rockets are only half the Russian problem; the other half is targeting systems.

As a serving officer from a NATO military explained to Asia Times, the reason Ukraine is currently so effective at long-range strikes is that they are based upon real-time satellite reconnaissance data – supplied by NATO spy satellites and a fleet of US commercial satellites – that grants Ukrainian forces virtually live coverage of the entire battlefield.

While the Kremlin has digital maps of Ukraine, limitations in real-time satellite coverage mean that Russian firepower is forced to rely on air, drone and on-ground reconnaissance for live targeting data. But that datastream is far narrower than the broad-spread, ever-changing digital battle map at Kiev’s disposal.

This advantage is maximized by the clear summer skies. That will diminish when autumn comes, during which time only specialist, narrow-view satellite systems will be able to penetrate cloud cover, the NATO source explained.

But by then it will be too late for Russia to take advantage of, as the autumn mud will obviate major cross-country maneuver operations. This situation presents a conundrum for the Kremlin – a conundrum that the firepower-heavy, technology-light North Koreans offer no riposte to.

“The North Korean artillery is not a system that networks in the way we think,” Chun said. “It does not have that ability.”

Korotchenko, the Russian TV pundit – almost certainly hoping for similar success against HIMARS – made reference to North Korea’s “wealth of experience with counter-battery warfare.”

His reference was in error, however. In 2010, KPA artillery hit Yeongpyong, a South Korea-controlled island off of North Korea’s coast.  However, it was the South Koreans who responded with counter-battery fire – albeit of questionable utility.

The North Koreans, having hit South Korean military targets with about one-third of their barrage, swiftly de-escalated, ceasing hostilities after just over one hour to prevent any retaliatory spiral. In the months-long, highly kinetic war being fought in Ukraine, the latter tactic has no utility.

Mobile multiple-launch rocket systems during an after-dark parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: AFP

The idea of North Korean troops being sent to assist Russia follows developments in the geopolitical space.

North Korea was one of the few nations that refused to join a UN condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and more recently granted diplomatic recognition to the Russian-supported breakaway Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

News broke in Russia last month that North Korea could send construction workers to assist in the reconstruction of the two battered republics. Alexander Matsegora, Moscow’s ambassador to Pyongyong, called North Korean workers, “Highly qualified, hardworking, and ready to work in the most difficult conditions.”

Lankov, while dubious about the prospect of a military deployment, reckons that – given North Korea’s perennial foreign-exchange shortage – construction workers could well be sent.

“Technically speaking, that would be a violation of UNSC resolutions [against the employment of North Korean laborers by third countries] but they can pretend they are not paid by the Russian government, but by the Donbas republic governments,” he said.

Another North Korean watcher reckons that the “military volunteers” cited on the TV show could actually come from the ranks of the laborers, given North Korean males’ prior military experiences and given that, in recent years, North Korean labor has been working in the under-populated Russian Far East at logging and construction sites.

“Russia is already relying on North Korean workers in the Russian Far East where Russia has a manpower shortage, so I think the guy in the TV show echoed what other Russians say about those workers,” Go Myong-hyun, a researcher at Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute told Asia Times.

But the forming of construction workers into units, arming them and providing them with combat leaders would generate even more problems than would incorporating regular North Korean units into Russia’s order of battle in Ukraine.

For that reason, “I doubt it if would have legs,” Go said.

And Kim and Putin have only ever met once – in 2019, in Vladivostok. But North Korea certainly seems keen to get closer to Russia.

The state is deeply isolated and heavily sanctioned, largely due to UN sanctions that both China and Russia have supported alongside the UN Security Council’s Western powers, France, the UK and US.

For this reason, North Korea is not incorporated in even ex-Western multinational organizations: It has not benefitted from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, nor is it a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, alongside China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

But now that it is so deeply entangled in the Ukraine war, Moscow may be prepared to look more kindly upon North Korea.

While Go agreed with Lankov that Russians’ popular view of North Korea is not positive, “I don’t think people in the Kremlin agree with that assessment,” he said. “The situation has changed. Russia has become sort of a rogue state, so they are in the same situation, there is a natural overlap – they are both isolated.”

After the establishment of the North Korean state in 1948, Moscow was Pyongyang’s primary benefactor. But after the USSR’s fall and China’s economic rise, Beijing filled that position. That has left North Korea dangerously dependent upon now-prosperous Beijing for such essentials as food aid, medical aid and fuel.  

View of the Yalu River, also called the Amrok River or Amnok River, on the border of China and North Korea in Dandong city, northeast China’s Liaoning province, 11 May 2018. Photo: AFP via Imaginechina / Yang Yang

But now that Russia is vulnerable due to its entanglement in Ukraine, North Korea has a possible opportunity. Russia could feasibly counterbalance China as a supplier of fuel and grain – and even, possibly, as a second guarantor of national defense.

Beijing saved Pyongyang with its intervention in the Korean War, and the two have a mutual defense treaty known as the 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty. But it is not as firm as the Seoul-Washington security partnership.  

While there are some 28,000 US troops based in South Korea, “there are no Chinese forces in North Korea,” said Go of the 1961 treaty. “It is more like a memorandum of understanding, an assumption that – if the North Koreans are pushed to the brink – maybe the Chinese will intervene, but it does not mean China will intervene automatically.”

If North Korea wants to sleep more soundly at night, there is only one other feasible partner in the region.

“The North Koreans want, or feel the need, to have similar a security architecture to what South Korea has,” Go said. “The only possibilities are China and Russia.”

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