Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Likely 1970s-Present)
Light Self-Propelled Gun/Assault Gun – Unknown Number Built
The KPA (Korean People’s Army), the standing military of North Korea, has a very peculiar selection of equipment, much of which is designed locally with roots in Chinese and Soviet technology. One of many aspects of the KPA is its vast use of self-propelled artillery pieces. A good dozen of various matings of chassis and artillery pieces are known to be in service of the KPA, with dozens to hundreds of vehicles simultaneously spotted in occasional firing exercises.
This artillery component is one of the most impressive elements of the KPA, and features some of the North Korean systems which seem the least outdated and the most capable in comparison to foreign vehicles. The heavy M1978 and M1989 170 mm “Koksan” or the recent M2018 being the most obvious examples. However, these are two of a myriad of systems in operation, the oldest of which can be a lot less impressive. One of the least known and likely the puniest and most obsolete of these is a 76 mm self-propelled gun based on the chassis of the 323 armored personnel carrier.
The 323 chassis and artillery
The North Korean 323 is a vastly modified derivative of the Chinese YW531A. The base North Korean version is an amphibious armored personnel carrier with five road wheels. It is fully amphibious and moves through water through two hydrojets. It features a turret armed with two 14.5 mm KPV machine guns and an infantry compartment for a complement of 10 dismounts, though North Korean sources claim as high as 12.
The 323 was introduced in the early 1970s, being first spotted by Western observers in 1973 and subsequently designated as the M1973 by the US Department of Defence (DoD). Soon after the type was introduced in the KPA, its chassis would start being re-used for other purposes, creating a family of vehicles with high parts commonality.
North Korea, by the 1970s, already had a large park of mostly Soviet-produced artillery pieces as well as local copies and variants of these types. With towed pieces progressively moving out of fashion in comparison to self-propelled ones, which provided far higher mobility, the KPA heavily invested in self-propelled artillery pieces from the 1970s onward.
The most famous piece to be mounted on the 323 likely is the 122 mm D-30 gun. A self-propelled gun mounting this piece on the 323 chassis entered production in 1976 and was designated M1977 by the US DoD. It was slightly improved into the M1985 type during the 1980s. Vehicles armed with 100 mm and, according to some claims, an indigenous 103 mm gun would also appear. These types were fairly often shown in consequent numbers during military exercises. However, at least two other types of 323 self-propelled artillery pieces, not accounting for mortars, are also known to exist. One mounts an unknown, likely 57 mm anti-tank gun. Another features the antique 76 mm M1936 F-22 divisional gun.
A North Korean Marder
As with most other North Korean vehicles, the 76 mm 323-based vehicle is known through exercises footage. It is, in this particular case, very scarce, even more so than for usual North Korean vehicles, with only two stills from a KPA firing exercise being available.
The vehicle consists of the basic hull of the 323 armored personnel carrier, which is best described as a welded steel box with a boat-like shape towards the front in order to improve movement through water.
The self-propelled gun features an open-topped rear compartment where the armament is located, with the turret removed to make space. On the 76 mm vehicle, the front plates are angled with the same angle rearward, with two small plates slightly angled inward. The compartment as a whole also appears fairly low. Some form of travel lock is present on the gun’s axis.
The gun’s mounting is not visible in any photos, but it retains the same gunshield as when used as a field gun. Its field of fire appears to be determined by the simple lack of superstructure towards the front. Overall, the superstructure appears similar to the one adopted on later 323 self-propelled guns, though perhaps less refined; this could be typical of the vehicle being one of the first of these conversions devised.
Though this part of the vehicle is not clear, it appears that the compartment is indeed closed towards the rear. It could feature a form of rear door or hatch, commonly found on 323-based artillery vehicles. The vehicle which has been observed features a log mounted on the side of the hull, but no other equipment or stowage appears visible.
Whether the hydrojets are present or have been removed is unknown as there is no known rear view of the vehicle, which would be needed to assess their presence. Open-topped vehicles are typically more at risk in amphibious operations due to the obvious danger of water entering through the top due to waves, particularly as the 76 mm-armed vehicle has a rather low superstructure. On the other hand, this vehicle appears to be a fairly quick conversion, which raises the question of whether or not removing the hydrojets would have been considered. The vehicle does appear to retain a trim vane, which would support the amphibious capacity being retained, though this may again just not have been worth the hassle to remove.
Armament: an Antique Soviet Field Gun
The armament present on the self-propelled gun is the Soviet 76 mm M1936 F-22 divisional gun. This was an artillery piece produced in moderate numbers during the late 1930s. It had been intended to operate not only as a divisional field gun, but also featured moderate anti-aircraft capacities, though this was not a success.
The gun has an L/51 barrel and is able to fire shells at a velocity varying from 645 m/s (Sh-354T shrapnel shell) to around 705 m/s (most HE shells), with armor-piercing shells, APHE or AP, having a muzzle velocity of 690 m/s. Though North Korea inherited some of these guns from the Soviet Union in the 1940s or 1950s, it makes for a very curious choice to arm a self-propelled gun. The more modern ZiS-3 is true, by all accounts, a much more common piece in the DPRK arsenal, due in large parts to the production of the F-22 already having been completed by the start of the Great Patriotic War in 1941, and stocks of the piece having been largely lost by attrition during the war before some could even be passed on the North Korean. The ZiS-3 is a more modern piece for which more spare parts are available. Furthermore, the KPA already had a large number of SU-76Ms at their disposal, which would permit studying the gun mount on these vehicles to mount into a self-propelled gun. Nonetheless, the vehicle went through with the F-22 gun.
The crew configuration of the vehicle is not known. Though in field use, the F-22 used a crew of six, it is very likely this cannot be replicated on the 323 vehicle, due to, simply, lack of space. The vehicle’s driver is located towards the front, as on the standard 323. The standard armored personnel carrier features another crew member, the commander, towards the front of the hull, and as such the commander of the self-propelled gun, or one of its servants, may also take a seat there. With the superstructure pushed so much to the rear, it is unclear whether space for one or two additional crew members may still exist in the hull. They would be hard-pressed to find space in the artillery compartment alongside the crew also present there though, as space there appears very limited. As such, it is fairly probable that only two to four crew members operate the gun. Unfortunately, only two crew members are visible on the known photo of the vehicle. Ammunition stowage is also unknown.
An Undated Vehicle, but an Obsolete One Nonetheless
With only limited known footage, dating the F-22-armed vehicle is hard. The known footage appears to date from at least the 1990s, if not the 2000s or even 2010s. However, the self-propelled gun as a whole appears quite a lot less professional than North Korean self-propelled guns introduced as early as the late 1970s. As such, it may have been one off, if not the first 323-based self-propelled gun, with the experience gained designing it being used to improve further vehicles. There is also the possibility that the conversion was not done by a professional institution, such as the Sinhung tank factory that manufactures the 323 and the M1977 and M1985 artillery derivatives, but rather a field workshop.
The role of the vehicle, either in the 1970s or even more so today, is in any case very limited. The 76 mm F-22 is an old and obsolete artillery piece, and it is unknown if the design of the 323 even allows it to make full use of its maximum range of about 14 kilometers. The vehicle may very well have been intended for direct fire-support, similarly to how the SU-76M can be used, though this vehicle also has indirect fire-support capacities. In this case, the vehicle would offer little more than a mobile, but obsolete field gun, in a very lightly armored platform that would be vulnerable to a heavy machine gun and anything larger, or even rifle and pistol caliber ammunition with any form of upward angle. One may cynically note that the vehicle offers little more in terms of operational capacities in comparison to the much older self-propelled guns that were created by the Axis using captured examples of the same F-22 gun during WWII, such as variants of the Marder II and Marder III by Germany or the TACAM T-60 by Romania.
Conclusion – the Poorest and Rarest 323 SPG
The F-22-armed 323 self-propelled gun is certainly one of the least impressive indigenous developments brought forward by North Korea’s military industry ever since it began manufacturing its own armored vehicles in the 1970s. Mounting an obsolete field gun in what appears to be a fairly crude manner, its use on a hypothetical Korean battlefield would have been very limited even if it somehow existed at least 25 to 30 years prior to its inception, in the Korean War. This would be even more so in a conflict at any point from the 1970s to now.
One should note that the vehicle definitely does not appear to be one of the most common 323-based self-propelled guns, only making one known appearance in which only two were spotted, though more may have been present. In comparison to the 100 and 122 mm-armed vehicles, it is a much rarer sight, which suggests far lower numbers were made – the deficiencies of the vehicle in comparison to other 323-based self-propelled guns likely being obvious. Nonetheless, considering the Korean People’s Army’s tendency to rarely if ever retire vehicles from service (and when retiring them, it is often from inability to maintain them rather than because of their poor capacities), it is very likely whatever number of F-22 armed self-propelled guns were manufactured are still in service somewhere in North Korea.
|323 fire support vehicle with 76mm F-22 Statistics
|~ 6.50 m
|~ 2.97 m
|Unknown, perhaps Deutz BF8L413F 320 hp diesel engine
Likely one commander
Unknown but small number of servants
|76 mm M1936 F-22 divisional gun
|Most likely around 14 mm maximum
THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun, Stijn Mitzer, Joost Oliemans
Oryx Blog – North Korean vehicles: https://web.archive.org/web/20180713025455/http://spioenkop.blogspot.com/2014/01/north-korea-and-her-fighting-vehicles.html