Soldiers hold weapons while seated on a vehicle carrying rockets as it drives past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017.
Washington CNN  — 

The US is accusing North Korea of secretly supplying Russia with artillery shells for the Ukraine war by concealing where they are being transported to, according to newly declassified intelligence.

US officials believe that the surreptitious North Korean shipments – along with drones and other weaponry that Russia has acquired from Iran – are further evidence that even Moscow’s conventional artillery arsenals have dwindled during eight months of combat. North Korea is trying to hide the shipments by making it appear as if the ammunition is being sent to countries in the Middle East or North Africa, the intelligence says.

The recent intelligence comes about two months after the US intelligence community said that it believed Russia was in the process of buying millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for use on the battlefield, CNN and other outlets reported at the time.

“In September, the (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) publicly denied that it intended to provide ammunition to Russia,” the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said in a statement to CNN. “However, our information indicates that the DPRK is covertly supplying Russia’s war in Ukraine with a significant number of artillery shells, while obfuscating the real destination of the arms shipments by trying to make it appear as though they are being sent to countries in the Middle East or North Africa.”

Officials did not provide evidence to support the new allegations. The declassified intelligence also did not provide details about how many weapons are part of the shipments, or how they would be paid for.

“We will continue to monitor whether these shipments are received,” Kirby said, noting that Russia has continued to look to actors like North Korea and Iran to sustain its aggressive war in Ukraine “amid supply shortages and the efficacy of international sanctions.”

Ongoing effort to resupply Russian artillery

American officials, however, have publicly touted the alleged deal as evidence that Russia is running out of weapons to continue the war.

As recently as two weeks ago, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines argued that “export controls are forcing Russia to turn to countries like Iran and North Korea for supplies, including UAVs, artillery shells and rockets.”

Kirby said on Wednesday that the support from Iran and North Korea is “not going to change the course of the war,” with the US remaining committed to providing Ukraine with continued security assistance.

But the shipments may now help Russia to bolster an important part of its war effort: a grinding artillery fight on the front lines.

“It could be significant development because one of the challenges for Russia has been sustaining artillery fire,” said Michael Kofman, the director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, who emphasized he had no knowledge of the underlying intelligence. “The Russian army has likely gone through millions of shells at this point.”

Russia has been “offsetting a deficit of manpower with much higher output of fires,” Kofman said, a strategy that he said has “likely been very costly on ammunition supplies” and has left Russia, like Ukraine, scouring the globe for countries with Soviet-caliber artillery supplies that are compatible with its systems in order to sustain the war.

In the weeks before the new intelligence was acquired, some military and intelligence officials were beginning to believe that North Korea was backing away from its agreement to provide weaponry to Russia, multiple officials explained to CNN.

Some officials had begun to tout it as a victory for the Biden administration’s strategy of selectively declassifying and publicizing some classified intelligence on Russia’s pursuit of the war, believing that when the United States made the deal known, it shed an unwelcome light on a transaction that Pyongyang did not want disclosed.

But now, US officials say that despite North Korea’s denials, they believe the rogue regime has moved ahead with its support for Moscow as the war appears poised to grind into its second year.

US officials have argued publicly that Russia has been forced to turn to North Korea and Iran for weaponry both because it has burned through its stockpiles in a conflict that has stretched many months longer than anticipated and because US and western export controls have made it more difficult for Russia to acquire the technological components it needs to rebuild its stocks on its own.

US officials have said they will work to expose and counter the shipments to Russia from Iran and North Korea and target the networks that enable these shipments, but they have not explicitly laid out how they plan to do that.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday that the US military “has engaged in interdictions” of weapons shipments in the past, but would not say if interdictions are being considered as weapons flow into Russia.

‘They’re anxious for ammunition anywhere they can get it’

The new intelligence that Russia is acquiring artillery shells from North Korea suggests that its shortages run deeper than just more sophisticated, precision-guided munitions, which US and western officials have long emphasized is a weak point in the Russian arsenal. It also extends to basic artillery.

“The Russians, by many accounts, are really wearing thin when it comes to some of those inputs that it needs to prosecute its war on Ukraine,” Price said on Tuesday, pointing to export controls and sanctions that have starved Russia of the inputs to make certain weapons.

The precise state of of Russia’s conventional munitions stocks isn’t publicly known, but Russia is “burning through tens of thousands of rounds a day,” said Adam Mount, the director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, who specializes in North Korea. “They’re anxious for ammunition anywhere they can get it.”

Over the summer, Russia was able to make some grinding progress in parts of Ukraine through a punishing artillery campaign. But since then, western-provided artillery has contributed to a successful counteroffensive push by Ukraine that has retaken large swaths of territory previously held by Russia.

North Korea would likely be able to provide Russia with 122- or 152-millimeter artillery shells and either tube artillery or multiple-rocket-launcher artillery that would be compatible with Russia’s systems, said Bruce Klingner, a former Korea analyst at the CIA who is now at the Heritage Foundation.

But for now, it’s unclear how impactful North Korea’s artillery shells will be to Russia on the battlefield.

In 2010, North Korea fired 170 122-millimeter shells at South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. Fewer than half hit the island, and of those, about a quarter failed to detonate – a high failure rate that “suggests that some DPRK-manufactured artillery munitions, especially (multiple rocket launcher) rounds, suffer from either poor quality control during manufacture or that storage conditions and standards are poor,” according to a 2016 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The last time that they made use of these systems showed that their systems were fairly inaccurate,” Mount said. “You’d expect these Soviet-era systems are aging so they will start to break down.”

This has been updated with additional reporting.