North Korea commits boots on the ground in Ukraine

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin visited fellow autocrat Kim Jong Un earlier this month, resulting in a new Russia-North Korea defense pact. As part of the deal, Russia agrees to provide North Korea with higher-precision weapons it can aim at Seoul. In return, Russia gets a unique rendition of the Russian anthem and more of the unreliable artillery shells it needs to fill out its dwindling stockpile.

However, Putin also seems to have emerged from the deal with something that many were not expecting—North Korean troops on the ground in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, the Kyiv Post reported that Pyongyang had announced that it was sending “a military engineering unit” to Donetsk Oblast. Russia has controlled portions of this region since 2014, but this is also the area where it recently forced Ukrainian troops from the ruined town of Avdiivka after months of hard fighting. Russian forces partially occupied the village of Novooleksandrivka this week as they continue to press forward in this area. It’s unclear whether the North Korean unit would be deployed inside the long-occupied areas of Donetsk, or positioned closer to the front lines. 

While the official line is that North Korean troops will help Russian forces rebuild some of the areas they destroyed through bombardment with heavy artillery and glide bombs, a U.S. Defense Department briefing on Tuesday offered a different possibility: Russia may use North Korean forces as “cannon fodder.”

At the briefing, Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder was asked about news of North Korean forces being deployed in Ukraine.

Gen. Ryder: So, just to clarify, you’re asking what do I think about Russia assigning North Korean forces to the battlefield in Ukraine?

Q: North Korean Army.

Gen. Ryder: Yeah, sending North—yeah, I mean, that’s certainly something to keep an eye on. I think that if I were North Korean military personnel management, I would be questioning my choices on sending my forces to be cannon fodder in an illegal war against Ukraine. And we’ve seen the kinds of casualties that Russian forces–so–but again, something that we’ll keep an eye on.

Russian casualties continue to be massive; As The New York Times reports, Russia is still practicing its human “wave” attacks, and the result is an average of over 1,000 Russian soldiers killed each day. “It is a style of warfare that Russian soldiers have likened to being put into a meat grinder, with commanding officers seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are sending infantry soldiers to die.”

There’s nothing new about this kind of assault. This is how Russia took Severodonetsk early in the war. It’s what finally drove Ukraine from Bakhmut just over a year ago. It’s how they have generated over 540,000 casualties

Russia needs cannon fodder. Their tactics are completely reliant on cannon fodder. And that may be the one thing Kim can supply in abundance.

On paper, North Korea has the fourth largest military in the world. Nearly 5% of the entire population—1.3 million people–-are considered to be active military. Another 600,000 are in the reserves.

There’s a phrase that Sen. Joe Biden used to describe the North Korean military in 2006 that still applies today: “paper tiger.” North Korea is extraordinarily dangerous because of the artillery, bombs, and handful of nukes it could deliver in an opening salvo of any conflict across its southern border. But that first shot might also be its last. North Korea’s forces are ranked far behind those of South Korea. In addition to being impoverished, underequipped, and outdated, North Korea’s military shares some major weaknesses with Russia, like poor training and miserable skills at logistics. 

But hey, when all Putin wants is someone to run forward and catch a bullet, North Korean fighters can do that as well as Russians. 

North Korea’s move comes as there are increasing reports that, despite claims of recruiting tens of thousands each month, Russia is actually facing a new personnel shortage. That shortage may be generated in part because brutal tactics—including reports that Russia is sending wounded troops back to the front as part of their “meat waves” have generated ever larger factions unwilling to fight.


The North Koreans wouldn’t be alone. Ukrainian Pravda reports that Russian authorities have begun rounding up migrants and shipping them to the front lines. Over 10,000 have reportedly already been dispatched to Ukraine.

“We started implementing the provisions of the Constitution,” said Russian official Alexander Bastrikin, “and our laws under which the individuals who obtained Russian citizenship must be put on military record and, if needed, participate in the special military operation.”

Though precise numbers aren’t known, it currently doesn’t seem that Kim intends to hand over that many of his troops—probably not enough to see Putin through even a single day of losses. But if those trains from Pyongyang to Vladivostok start running more regularly, North Korean troops may do more than help clean up Moscow’s mess. 

It’s not like Kim would miss a few people. Considering that 2023 was reportedly the closest North Korea has come to widespread famine since the 1990s, sending a good portion of that military off to Ukraine might even seem like a grand idea.

But the biggest immediate effect of the buddy act between Kim and Putin is how it is drawing South Korea closer to Ukraine. So far, Seoul has limited its support to humanitarian aid. However, South Korea is a growing exporter of weapons that are both inexpensive and reliable.  

As with every step in this illegal invasion, Putin may have just signed up Russia for a bleaker, more isolated future with a new partner that’s a lot more trouble than he’s worth.

Though I hear Kim writes beautiful love letters.

There’s a tendency to lean into the idea of operations in Ukraine shutting down in the fall and spring “mud seasons,” but previous years have seen a big decline in activity over the summer. This time last year confirmed Russian losses of hardware each day were in single digits. The rate of losses in the summer of 2022, following Russia’s withdrawal from the area around Kyiv and before Ukraine launched its successful counterattack in Kharkiv, were not much higher.

But in 2024, the casualty rate for both men and equipment remains high right into summer.


The Ukrainian general staff has also been regularly reporting significant Russian losses in an area that had been relatively quiet in recent months: artillery.

I had previously speculated that decreased losses in the artillery category showed how Russia was becoming more dependent on glide bombs to do the work previously handled by aging D-30 howitzers. But now D-30s are back on the busted list and … I don’t know what it means. 

The hardest fighting is still reported to be in the area north of Kharkiv and around Chasiv Yar.

Ukraine has successfully pushed Russian forces back from several towns and villages north of Kharkiv, including much of the highly battered Vovchansk. Troops on the ground report that Ukrainian forces are well positioned and that, after getting permission to use U.S. weapons across the Russian border, they’re doing well at Lyptsi, Starytsya, and other locations in the north. 

Ukrainian forces also reportedly made an advance to the south, in the direction of Kreminna, pushing back Russian forces that occupied the area east of Terny.

However, for the past two weeks Russia has reportedly been digging in and building defensive fortifications on the Ukrainian side of the border in the north, attempting to hold onto a buffer that provides protection to air strips established near Belgorod. This could make it very difficult for Ukrainian troops to drive Russian forces completely back from their initial gains in the north. 

[Note: Ukrainian open intelligence group DeepState UA was reporting that Ukraine had made some significant advances in the north, but details and maps were not available at the time this article was written.]

Financial Times reported on Thursday that the U.S. was working on a deal that would see up to eight Israeli Patriot batteries transferred to Ukraine. Not only would this be a big step in protecting Ukrainian cities from renewed Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure, it would represent a huge shift in relations between Israel and Moscow.

Some of the systems under consideration are reportedly armed with older missiles that are still effective but close to “aging out.” 


RELATED STORY: Ukraine Update: Striking across the Russian border is critical to Ukraine’s survival

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