WASHINGTON ― The U.S. has information that indicates North Korea is covertly supplying Russia with a “significant” number of artillery shells for its war against Ukraine, the White House’s National Security Council spokesman said Wednesday.
John Kirby said North Korea is “trying to make it appear as though they’re being sent to countries in the Middle East or North Africa.”
He declined to provide a specific estimate on the quantity of ammunition being sent to bolster the Russian effort, but noted the U.S. doesn’t believe “they are in such a quantity that the would change the momentum of the war.”
U.S. officials believe the shipments, with drones Russia has acquired from Iran, show that the grinding war and Western sanctions have sapped Russia’s arsenals and ability to produce new weapons.
“As [Russian President Vladimir Putin] continues to lose ground, lose soldiers, to lose momentum, he’s reaching beyond his borders,” Kirby said. “It’s a sign both of the isolation that he continues to feel economically. His own defense-industrial base can’t keep up with the pace at which he is using armaments in Ukraine.”
After the White House warned Russia might look to North Korea for new arms, Pyongyang in September denied it had or would do so.
On Wednesday, the White House did not provide evidence to support the new accusations or answer questions about how many weapons were involved, how they were being conveyed or how the U.S. might respond.
Asked about the number of shells, Kirby said: “We’re not talking dozens here. It’s a significant amount.”
The U.S. was monitoring to see whether the weapons were received and would consult with allies and partners about what accountability measures to apply, he explained.
The Biden administration warned last week Russia might seek short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles from Iran, but Kirby said there was no indication that had happened as of Wednesday. Russia has been using Iranian-made drones to strike Ukraine’s power stations and other civilian infrastructure.
The White House reaffirmed its willingness, and the willingness of allies, to provide military aid to Ukraine.
According to Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea deputy division chief now with the Heritage Foundation, North Korea would likely be providing Russia with 122mm and 152mm shells, as well as rounds for multiple rocket launchers. Those rounds would be compatible with Russian systems and from systems North Korea is trying to replace with newer systems, which require new calibers, he said.
The age and quality of the rounds involved is an open question. During the North’s artillery bombardment of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, a quarter of the rounds that hit the island didn’t detonate. “If it’s older ammo, then that also raises the idea of quality,” Klingner said.
Tension on the peninsula
The White House also condemned North Korea’s “reckless” launch of at least 23 missiles — 17 in the morning and six in the afternoon there on Wednesday — off its eastern and western coasts. It said the weapons were all short-range ballistic missiles or suspected surface-to-air missiles.
North Korea also fired about 100 artillery shells into an eastern maritime buffer zone the Koreas created in 2018 to reduce tensions, according to South Korea’s military. The launches came after North Korea threatened to use nuclear weapons to get the U.S. and South Korea to “pay the most horrible price in history” in protest of ongoing South Korean-U.S. military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal.
The White House maintained that the United States has no hostile intent toward North Korea and vowed to work with allies to curb the North’s nuclear ambitions.
”These launches did not pose an immediate threat to the American homeland or U.S. personnel, and we are of course coordinating with our allies and partners,” Kirby said, defending the ongoing exercises as long planned.
”There’s an annual exercise ongoing right now, bilateral exercises in South Korea,” Kirby said. “These launches just underscore the need to make sure we have the appropriate military readiness in and around the region.”
This year’s Vigilant Storm military exercises are the largest-ever for the annual fall maneuvers, according to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. About 1,600 flights are planned involving 240 American and South Korean fighter jets. The round-the-clock drills, which began Oct. 31, are to continue through Nov. 4 and include warfighting tactics both in the air and on the ground, it said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will welcome South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup at the Pentagon on Thursday, the department announced separately on Wednesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.