North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a munitions factory at an undisclosed location on January 10, 2024. (Credit: KCNA/Reuters)

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) --

North Korean munitions factories are "operating at full capacity" to produce weapons and projectiles for Russia, according to South Korea's defense minister, as Moscow's devastating war in Ukraine reaches its third year.

South Korea's latest estimate offers new clues about the crucial but highly secret role North Korea is playing in helping resupply Moscow's war of attrition at a time when Ukraine's own need for vital military resupplies is being stymied. by predominantly Republican lawmakers in Washington.

Weapons and military equipment, including millions of artillery shells, are delivered to Russia in exchange for shipments of food and other necessities, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said Monday.

Since August, Pyongyang has sent about 6,700 containers to Russia, which could hold more than 3 million 152mm artillery shells or more than 500,000 122mm multiple rocket launcher shells, according to Shin's ministry.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a munitions factory at an undisclosed location on January 10, 2024. (Credit: KCNA/Reuters)

"While North Korean arms factories (for non-Russian exports) operate at 30% capacity due to shortages of raw materials and electricity, factories producing weapons and artillery shells for Russia are operating at full capacity" Shin said in a meeting with reporters.


In return, food accounts for the majority of containers from Russia to North Korea, and the food supply situation in the isolated Asian nation appears to be "stable," according to the Ministry of Defense.

In a fact sheet published last Friday, the US State Department said North Korea has delivered more than 10,000 containers of ammunition or related materials to Russia since September.

CNN has reached out to South Korea's Defense Ministry for comment on the US estimate, but has not yet received a response.

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The deliveries come at a crucial time in Russia's war against Ukraine, with Moscow's forces carrying out a series of offensives along nearly 1,000 kilometer front lines in an attempt to break what former top general Kyiv described last year as a "stalemate."

Russia needs new supplies of ammunition and projectiles to sustain its attrition war effort after suffering heavy losses of men and equipment during more than two years of war.

Both sides continue to exchange heavy fire daily, depleting ammunition supplies.

Moscow's recent advance on Avdiivka, a city that has been on the front lines since Russian-backed separatists launched a rebellion against Kyiv in 2014, shows Russia's ability to wear down Ukrainian forces despite suffering heavy losses due to its large size, ability to send wave after wave of troops to the battlefield and air superiority.

Kyiv faces challenges on multiple fronts, including struggling with its own manpower limitations and the fact that the West's ammunition supply is beginning to run out.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian and Western officials have said Avdiivka was lost because troops did not have enough ammunition to defend it.

Zelensky told CNN this week that "millions" could die in Ukraine if US lawmakers do not approve President Joe Biden's $60 billion aid request for Kyiv.

Without U.S. help, Ukraine will not only struggle to make new gains on the battlefield, but will also find it difficult to continue defending itself this year, Zelensky said.


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North Korea arms concerns to Russia

Ammunition deliveries from Pyongyang to Moscow have been recorded since just before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met his counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, for a September summit in Russia's far east.

The meeting was a clear sign of closer relations between the two nations, as both countries face international isolation over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.

North Korea, which has faced years of international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, lacks everything from cash and food to missile technology.

Intelligence officials in Washington are increasingly concerned about growing ties between North Korea and Russia, CNN previously reported, and the long-term implications of what appears to be a new level of strategic partnership between the two nations.

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Since that summit, North Korea has likely provided Russia with "millions of artillery rounds" over the past year, according to a report released earlier this month by the Pentagon's inspector general.

In November, South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) said Pyongyang has exported more than a million projectiles to Russia in 10 separate shipments since early August to support its war in Ukraine.

US officials have previously warned North Korea that it will "pay a price" if it provides weapons to Moscow for use against Ukraine.

The White House confirmed last month that Russia has been firing North Korean missiles at Ukrainian cities.

The United States and its allies are also concerned about the technology North Korea seeks from Russia in exchange for weapons.

According to two US officials, Pyongyang is seeking technology that could improve its nuclear-powered satellite and submarine capabilities, which could significantly improve North Korea's capabilities in areas that the rebel regime has not fully developed.

North KoreaRussian War in UkraineArms Sale