North Korean troops could be sent to Ukraine due to their sheer numbers, not their effectiveness, experts say

North Korean troops could be sent to Ukraine due to their sheer numbers, not their effectiveness, experts say
  • North Korea deepened its defense ties with Russia through a new security pact last month.

  • The Pentagon said it would "keep an eye" on North Korea potentially sending forces to Russia.

  • If troops were sent it would be due to their numbers, not their effectiveness, experts told BI.

Speculation has been growing that North Korea could send troops to Ukraine.

Last month, Russia and North Korea signed a pact agreeing to give each other military assistance if the other is attacked.

As part of the pact, South Korea's TV Chosun reported, citing an unnamed South Korean government official, North Korea plans to send construction and engineering forces to occupied Ukraine later this month for rebuilding efforts.

No official confirmation has been made so far, but speculation heightened during a Pentagon press briefing late last month when a journalist said that North Korea's Central Military Commission had announced that North Korea would join forces with the Russian military.

(The Institute for the Study of War questioned the reporter's claim, saying that it had found no such statement made by North Korea.)

In response, Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder described North Korea potentially sending military forces to Russia as "certainly something to keep an eye on."

As of now, the prospect of North Korean soldiers being deployed to Ukraine is speculative and unlikely, experts told Business Insider.

But if it did happen, the main advantage Russia would take from it would be North Korea's sheer number of soldiers — not their effectiveness, they said.

"North Korea has a large military of 1.3 million," Edward Howell, Korea Foundation Fellow with Chatham House's Asia-Pacific Programme, told BI.

"Yet, the quality of North Korean conventional weapons, arms, and the soldiers themselves is far weaker," he said.

John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that even if the reports were true, he doubted the deployment of North Korean troops would have a "significant" impact on the battlefield in Ukraine.

One of the largest militaries but not the most effective

North Korea has the world's fourth-largest army, with estimates putting its troop numbers at about 1.2 million personnel.

But while it is "well trained" and "highly motivated," the Korean People's Army has not had any real-world combat experience in decades, said Evans Revere, senior advisor with the global advisory firm Albright Stonebridge Group.

The last time they really fought was during the Korean War, where fighting ended in 1953.

Revere, who served as the acting assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs during the George W. Bush administration, said this raised questions about how its troops would perform in combat against the "agile, determined, experienced, and tough Ukrainian military."

The Korean army's military exercises focus on fighting two adversaries, the US and South Korea, he said, adding that its weapons include "a lot of what the US military calls 'legacy systems,' particularly their aircraft, tanks, and artillery."

"This could be a problem on the battlefields of Ukraine," he said.

While North Korea is estimated to have 50 nuclear warheads as of January 2024, its stockpile of weapons is seen as outdated and unreliable, experts said.

This means it would take a while for North Korean soldiers to adjust to newer weaponry, Bruce Bennett, a defense researcher at RAND, told BI.

This would likely prompt Kim Jong Un, the country's leader, to only send "politically reliable" troops to support Russia, he said.

"What is uncertain is whether the Russians would provide the North Koreans with needed advanced weaponry — better tanks and artillery, communications and electronic warfare," Bennett said, adding that Kim would likely insist on that.

Wallace Gregson, a former US Marine Corps officer and former assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, said that North Korean troops' effectiveness would also depend on how they are supported with food, fuel, and medical care, and their command relationships with the Russians.

"Given what we know about nutrition in North Korea, even in the army, they might have issues," he told BI.

Howell from Chatham House was more blunt.

"If North Korea were to send troops to aid Russia's war, then they would merely be there due to their sheer numbers and not their military effectiveness," he said.

Deployment should not be completely ruled out

According to Benjamin Young, assistant professor of homeland security and emergency preparedness at Virginia Commonwealth University, Kim would not send troops "thousands of miles to Europe in order to die meaningless deaths on the front lines for a different country."

Young, the author of "Guns, Guerillas, & the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World," said that, if they were sent, "the North Korean troops will most likely play an auxiliary role in terms of building fortifications and structures."

"They may also help repair tanks, weapons systems, and other armaments," he added.

Hardie, from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said we should "wait and see" if the report is true and an actual deployment takes place.

But if it does, he added that North Korean soldiers may "simply" be helping rebuild a destroyed city like Mariupol.

Other experts, however, had a different view.

Bennett, from RAND, said he thinks it is "fairly likely" that North Korea will send troops to Ukraine, without elaborating further.

Howell, meanwhile, said we should not rule out the possibility of some transfer of individuals — whether troops or support personnel — given the recent increase in defense ties between Russia and North Korea.

But we "must remember that, at present, these rumors are merely speculative," he added.

Read the original article on Business Insider