SEOUL, South Korea — A rare trip by Russia’s defense minister to North Korea last week is not a sign of a flourishing alliance but the latest indication of the Kremlin’s mounting desperation over the course of its war in Ukraine, U.S. officials say.
Reflecting a more cautious stance, China dispatched a much lower-profile delegation to help Pyongyang mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, and has since fortified its policy of not arming its so-called “partner” state, Russia.
Overseeing an after-dark military parade in Pyongyang to mark what the North refers to as “Victory Day” on July 27, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made sure to be very publicly flanked by his visitors from Moscow and Beijing on the reviewing stand.
Mr. Shoigu, whose leadership of the Ukraine campaign has brought harsh criticism even from many inside Russia, was on a shopping trip to rebuild Russia’s depleted arsenal as the stalemated Ukraine campaign approaches the 18-month mark, Defense Department spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder told reporters at the Pentagon this week.
“Certainly, we have seen in the past Russia looking to try to obtain munitions from countries like North Korea,” Brig. Ryder said. Mr. Shoigu’s trip, he continued, “highlights the dire straits that Russia finds itself in when it comes to resupplying and refreshing its munitions capabilities.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted the same problem for Russian President Vladimir Putin in remarks late last month: “We’re seeing Russia desperately looking for support, for weapons, wherever it can find to, to continue to prosecute its aggression against Ukraine,” he remarked.
Mr. Shoigu, resplendent in full uniform, was making the first visit to North Korea by a Russian defense minister since the collapse of the Soviet Union. His presence underscored the lack of active supporters for Russia as it is forced to lean toward partners it traditionally despised.
“For decades, North Korea had a very bad reputation in Russia,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian-born expert on North Korea who teaches at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “This [visit] shows isolation: Russia is looking for countries that are willing to provide at least some support.”
In a widely noted diplomatic downgrade, China’s delegation was headed by Li Hongzhong, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and a member of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. Mr. Li is a longtime member of Communist Party hierarchy but lacks the profile and clout of Mr. Shoigu, China watchers say.
Beijing has also sent signals of a cooling enthusiasm for Russia”s Ukraine adventure, even while offering rhetorical support for Mr. Putin’s criticisms of Kyiv and the West. While a Chinese firm has reportedly exported body armor to Russia, Beijing has not supplied Moscow with weapons or munitions, despite concerns expressed by the Biden administration.
On July 31, China halted exports of long-range civilian drones to Russia, citing concerns about their potential use in the fighting in Ukraine.
North Korea and Ukraine
Last November, Washington accused North Korea of supplying train loads of ammunition to Russia, accusations Pyongyang denied. But evidence of a supply chain is emerging: Last week, a correspondent for the Financial Times observed Ukrainian forces firing North Korean rockets — rockets likely captured from Russian units.
North Korea’s national armory, from small arms to ballistic missiles, is based largely on Warsaw Pact/Russian originals. Key firing barrels — 82mm mortars, 122mm “Grad” multiple launch rocket systems and 152mm howitzers — use identical calibers. And Russia needs munitions.
A senior allied military source told The Washington Times last week that Russia artillery, earlier in the war, was firing multiple shells for each Ukrainian shot. But now, Russian and Ukraine have reached virtual parity in munitions expenditure, he said.
While Kiev’s summer offensive proceeds with agonizing slowness, a weakness in artillery could prove fateful for Russia’s efforts, given that almost all other arms of Moscow’s military have underperformed.
Attacking Russian forces suffered heavy losses in fighting in cities such as Hostomel and Vuhledar. The mercenary Wagner Group, which spearheaded Russia’s winter offensive and provided thousands of fighters to supplement the Russian attack, has been withdrawn from the theater.
British intelligence reportedlate last year that battalion tactical groups — the formations in which regular Russian motorized units invaded — have been reformed. Russia’s air force has failed to win decisive air superiority; its navy has been pushed back from Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
The one Russian arm that has proven formidable is tactical artillery, which have been used to fight forward assaults and decimate Ukrainian manpower and equipment.
If a munitions shortage, combined with Ukrainian deep strikes on batteries and arms depots, degrades Russia’s artillery, the status of its expeditionary force in Ukraine may become tenuous.
Mr. Lankov believes Mr. Shoigu was not simply seeking munitions from Pyongyang: He had other aims.
“If Russia really wanted to buy weaponry and more ammunition, why such a show?” he asked. “Was it not possible to send a non-uniformed official for a clandestine meeting? Why attend an arms expo in front of TV journalists?”
The answer, he said, is messaging.
“This could be a way to send a signal to the world about Russia’s willingness to restart military cooperation with North Korea,” Mr. Lankov said. “The message for Washington is that Russia can create an additional area of trouble for the U.S.”
Another Russian source told Washington Times that Mr. Shoigu’s visit could be “mirrroring” — retaliation for South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s surprise visit to Kiev on July 15. South Korea has been an active supplier of aid and non-lethal military equipment to the Ukrainians, though Seoul so far has balked at sending hard military aid.
China’s delegation, conversely, took a very low-key approach while in Pyongyang.
Li Hongzhong “isn’t a nobody, but he is relatively low down in the hierarchy compared to Shoigu,” said Joel Atkinson, a professor of Chinese Studies at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “In theory, Beijing could have chosen to send someone with a bit more gravitas.”
The dispatch of the relatively low-level functionary sends two signals, Mr. Atkinson believes. It shows that China considers North Korea “a small country that can’t exist without Chinese support,” and also sends a message to Seoul and Washington that China is open to cooperation.
As for Beijing’s reluctance to arm Moscow, Mr. Atkinson reckons that while Chinese President Xi Jinping does not want to see Mr. Putin defeated, “he wants to avoid being too provocative.”
Beijing’s commerce and diplomacy are at stake. “Chinese companies are vulnerable to sanctions,” Mr Atkinson said, adding that arms supply “would also isolate Beijing’s friends in Europe.”