Kim Jong Un is making a rare visit to Russia this week for a meeting with Putin.
US officials believe the two will discuss North Korea giving weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine.
North Korea boast a fearsome artillery and ammo arsenal that would boost Russia's dwindling supply.
As Russia burns through its ammo supply in Ukraine, it's desperately looking for support from its few allies.
That includes North Korea, which boasts a formidable artillery supply that could give Moscow just what it needs for its ongoing war efforts.
This week, Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) leader Kim Jong Un is taking a trip to Russia for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. It's Kim's first known international trip in more than four years, the last also being to Russia in 2019 for a summit with Putin regarding North Korea's nuclear program.
Their upcoming talks will likely focus on Russia's increasing need for ammunition for its ongoing war in Ukraine.
Although Moscow could up its production to around 2 million shells annually soon, the number will still fall short of its war needs. It also pales in comparison to what Russia's been using up. Just last week, one Western official told the BBC that estimates suggested Russia fired between 10 million and 11 million rounds in Ukraine last year after its initial full-scale invasion.
With a clear need for firepower and a dwindling group of allies to get it from, Russia is turning to North Korea. But while the move seems frantic, it's also calculated. North Korea makes headlines for its nuclear weapons program, but the dictatorship also has a threatening artillery presence that could give Russia the stopgap it needs to keep pounding away at Ukraine.
Back in 2020, think tank Rand Corp assessed that North Korea maintains about 6,000 deadly artillery systems within range of major South Korean population centers, including Seoul. Rand made a chilling estimate: If these artillery systems were deployed, they could potentially kill more than 10,000 people in a hour.
And that's just the systems within firing range of South Korea. The regime likely has plenty more in reserve — and according to a 2021 report by the International Institute for Stratetic Studies, North Korea also keeps around 5,500 rocket artillery systems, 4,000 tanks, and 2,500 armored vehicles.
One key takeaway from Rand's study included DPRK's "shelling could kill many thousands in just an hour, with little warning" and "it would be difficult for the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States, once the bombardment had begun, to halt it, or otherwise protect the ROK population, before it could do serious harm."
"Therefore, it is in the interests of all actors concerned to deescalate as quickly as possible once a provocation cycle starts and avoid the conditions that could lead to a costly and bloody exchange of military firepower," the report added.
It's a staggering scenario that speaks to North Korea's military might — one that adds some weight to the pariah country's decades-long threat to turn its enemies into a "sea of fire."
Rand's report also noted that it could be difficult for South Korea and the US to target North Korean artillery units hidden and sheltered from counterfire. But most experts assess that there would be a severe response from Seoul and Washington if North Korea followed through on its threats.
Despite the DPRK's daunting conventional capabilities — and increasingly threatening missile tests — it's not quite clear if all of the nation's weapons work.
Multiple experts have said some of Kim's stockpiles are aging and ineffective, while Ukrainian soldiers said North Korean-made rockets found in Ukraine are "unreliable and do crazy things sometimes." The DPRK has previously denied accusations that it has been providing weapons to the Russian military.
Russia's most recent effort to retrieve more aid from North Korea was back in late July, when Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made a state visit to the isolated nation during celebrations marking 70 years since the 1953 Korean War armistice.
During the trip, Shoigu and Kim took a tour of North Korea's new weaponry, including its Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile.
One White House official said Shoigu also went to Pyongyang "in a bid to convince North Korea to sell munitions to Russia to support Russia's war."
"To that end, our information indicates that Russia is seeking to increase military cooperation with the DPRK, such as through DPRK sale of artillery munitions, again, to Russia," White House National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby said.
With Putin and Kim's meeting looming, it appears there may be more movement on that assistance. But any successful military aid to Russia will come at a cost, assuming Russia has things — potentially food and support in international bodies — that North Korea needs in return.
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