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Ukrainian artillery crews have been firing rockets made in North Korea against Russian positions, turning Pyongyang’s munitions against the invasion forces of its ally President Vladimir Putin.
The North Korean arms, whose use by Ukraine has not been previously reported, were shown to the Financial Times by troops operating Soviet-era Grad multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) near the devastated city of Bakhmut.
The origins of Ukraine’s armoury highlight how Europe’s biggest land conflict since the second world war has become a mixed-up cauldron for generations of the world’s military equipment, ranging from ageing Soviet kit to modern precision weapons.
Ruslan, a Ukrainian artillery commander, said the North Korean munitions were not favoured by his troops because of their relatively high dud rate, with many known to misfire or fail to explode. Most were manufactured in the 1980s and 1990s, according to their markings.
One Ukrainian Grad unit member warned the FT not to get too close to the rocket launcher when the crew fired the North Korean munitions because “they are very unreliable and do crazy things sometimes”.
The gunners were among artillery units supporting Ukraine’s assault on Russian forces on the northern and southern flanks of Bakhmut, which is in the eastern region of Donetsk.
Journalists for Getty Images and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty photographed Ukrainian forces in possession of North Korean munitions in the southern Zaporizhzhia region in late June and earlier this month but did not identify them as being from North Korea.
The Ukrainian soldiers said the rockets had been “seized” from a ship by a “friendly” country before being delivered to Ukraine. They declined to provide further details.
Ukraine’s defence ministry suggested the rockets were taken from Russian forces. “We capture their tanks, we capture their equipment and it is very possible that this is also the result of the Ukrainian army successfully conducting a military operation,” said Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister.
“Russia has been shopping around for different types of munitions in all kinds of tyrannies, including North Korea and Iran,” he added.
It is highly unlikely North Korea would provide Ukraine directly with the munitions, as Pyongyang has been supportive of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu flew to Pyongyang this week to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice and “strengthen co-operation” with its military.
The White House in March claimed to have evidence that Moscow was negotiating with Pyongyang to exchange weapons for food. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby has also alleged Pyongyang sold rockets and missiles to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner group at the height of the battle of Bakhmut, the longest and bloodiest of the Russian invasion. Prigozhin dismissed the accusation as “gossip and speculation”.
The Grad — its name translates as “hail” — is a self-propelled 122mm MLRS designed by the Soviet Union. Up to 40 rockets can be fired by one system in less than 20 seconds from tubes mounted on its Ural truck chassis.
Both sides have employed Grad rocket launchers since Moscow first invaded eastern Ukraine using regular and local proxy forces under the guise of a separatist uprising in 2014. Human Rights Watch has described Grad rockets as being “notoriously indiscriminate”.
Michael Kofman, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, described Grads as “the AK-47 of MLRS”, used by dozens of military forces around the world.
Their ubiquity has encouraged many countries to make munitions for the system, including North Korea.
Despite reliability issues, the Ukrainians are happy to use them. “We need every rocket we can get,” said Ruslan.
Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv