By Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) - Russia could be about to buy millions of artillery shells and rockets from old Cold-War ally North Korea, the White House said, an allegation immediately dismissed as "fake" by Russia's ambassador to the United Nations.
North Korea has a long history of exporting weapons - many of which are based on Soviet or Russian designs - and could provide Russia with a range of conventional small arms, experts said.
Here is what is known about North Korea's weapons industry, its stockpiles of conventional ammunition, and its defence exports.
WHAT WEAPONS COULD NORTH KOREA PROVIDE?
North Korea has a huge stockpile of "dumb" artillery shells and rockets of Soviet-era munitions that date back to the 1950s, said Hugh Griffiths, a former coordinator for a U.N. panel of experts that monitors sanctions on North Korea, and now an independent sanctions consultant.
"The North Koreans do have tremendous stockpiles of relatively primitive artillery and rocket systems some of which are of a similar type and caliber used by the Russians to shell Ukrainian cities and towns," he said.
Among the most likely weapons could be 107mm Katyusha rockets, 122mm rocket launchers, 155mm or 122mm artillery shells, or other small arms ammunition for machine guns or automatic rifles, said Bruce Bechtol, a professor at Angelo State University in Texas, who has done research on North Korea's arms sales.
"Everything North Korea makes is basically a copy of old Soviet systems," he said.
Bechtol said even with sanctions, it did not make sense that Russia would be unable to produce such weapons itself.
If Russia was bypassing all of its other supply chain sources to go all the way to North Korea, then either the situation was far worse for the Russian military than anyone thought, or it was preparing for a major offensive that required extra supplies, he said.
HISTORY OF WEAPONS SALES
The potential deal described by American officials on Tuesday would be a large one for North Korea but would not be unprecedented, Bechtol said.
"They sold an awful lot of ammunition to both Syria and Iran and to Hezbollah during the Syrian civil war," he said.
In recent years, the panel of experts has accused North Korea of dodging sanctions to supply weapons to Syria and Myanmar, including chemical weapon supplies, ballistic missile components, and conventional weapons such as multiple rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles.
"Time and time again one may witness the desperation of the North Koreans to raise foreign currency revenue or obtain sanctioned commodities such oil," Griffiths said.
HOW MIGHT IT HAPPEN?
A deal with Russia could be larger than many of those previous shipments, yet easier from a logistics standpoint, experts said.
Because the deal would be a sanctions violation and therefore ships could be subject to seizure while at sea, North Korea would likely send any arms to Russia by rail across their common border, Bechtol said.
Griffiths noted it would be much less risky for the North Koreans to smuggle munitions illegally into Russia than it is for them to send military equipment or munitions via sea or air to Myanmar or Syria, for example.
"The North Koreans would not be hesitant to deplete their stockpiles for such an important and unusual client," he said.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)