Categories
Cold War North Korean Armor Modern North Korean Armor

M1992 Armored Personnel Carrier

Nation Flag IconNorth Korea (Late 1980s – Unknown, may still be in operation)
Armored Personnel Carrier & Weapons platform – Production run of unknown number (likely moderate & out of production)

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), more often simply known as North Korea, maintains a defence industry which produces all kinds of military vehicles for its armed forces. Ever since the 1970s, and increasingly so over the years, North Korea has been manufacturing its own armored personnel carriers, light tanks, main battle tanks, self-propelled artillery pieces of all purposes (fire support, but also anti-tank, and even anti-ship missile launchers on armored personnel carrier hulls) and self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. The majority of these products can be fairly clearly linked to a Soviet or Chinese ancestor though, even if they have varied considerably from this original inspiration. The Chonma-Ho and even Songun-Ho series of MBT can be linked back to the T-62. The 323 APC, as well as the M1981 light tank and the derivative M2009 Chunma-D APC can be linked back to the Chinese YW531A, the M2010 wheeled APC to the BTR-80, the M1989 SPAAG to the ZSU-23-4 Shilka, etcetera.

Once in a while though, in parades in Kim-Il Sung square, one may observe some vehicles with vastly less clear links to Chinese or Soviet vehicles. In this case, while some inspiration can be found, the vehicle still mostly appears to be a North Korean development starting from scratch or almost scratch. At the very least, it starts from a base different from whatever China or the USSR delivered to the DPRK decades ago. An example of such a vehicle is the elusive and rare M1992 APC.

The three leading M1992 APCs during the 1992 parade for the 60th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army. The two vehicles on the side bear the national flag, while the vehicle at the center features the Korean Worker’s Party flag. Source: m.blog.naver

An unknown development, first seen in 1992

As its name given by the American Department of Defence suggests, the M1992 armored personnel carrier was first seen in 1992, during a parade commemorating what the DPRK considers to be the 60th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army, allegedly founded in 1932 as an anti-Japanese occupation organization.

North Korean vehicles first appearing during parades is extremely common and is the main source of information for outside audiences. The lack of ties of the M1992 to well-known vehicles in comparison to other North Korean vehicle types means theorizing on its development process is even more difficult. The vehicle was likely designed and produced in the late 1980s though. The vehicle has been seen in three different configurations. One appears to be an armored personnel carrier. Two appear to take the base of this armored carrier, but modify it to operate as a weapon platform instead, one for Chinese Type 63 107 mm rocket launchers, and the other for the 9K38 Igla man-portable air defense system (MANPADS).

The base design of the M1992 armored personnel carrier

The M1992 takes the form of a fairly crude-looking 4×4 vehicle. The armored body found on the vehicle somewhat resembles the BRDM-1 armored car, though this type is not known to ever have been in the DPRK’s service. As the BRDM-1, it uses a welded construction, with a “boat-like” front hull and a shape generally suggesting the vehicle was intended for amphibious operations. As the BRDM-1, the M1992 features two windows with shutters for the two crew-member, the driver and commander, to look out of. The vehicle appears to be provided with three headlights, two to the right and one to the left.

The engine of the vehicle is very likely installed at the front. While the armored body of the M1992 resembles the BRDM-1, the vehicle is thought to be built using a large variety of commercially-available parts, and that body may have just been placed onto the chassis of a commercially-available truck. The model of the engine is obviously unknown, but it appears to be a diesel.

The 13th to 15th M1992s during the 1992 parade. This photo gives a good view of the angular body of the vehicle. Source: m.blog.naver

At the rear of the crew compartment, one may find the infantry-carrying section of the M1992. The vehicle features a rather boxy rear and is generally not too different from a vehicle like the BTR-40 or BTR-152 in terms of silhouette, though it has a roof. The infantry compartment appears large enough for around six soldiers. It features a number of hatches that can be used to exit the vehicle, but likely also operate its weaponry. Two weapons are mounted on the M1992 roof. Towards the front, the vehicle disposes of a 30 mm AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher. Commonly used on North Korean vehicles, this weapon fires 30×29 mm grenades with a high-explosive fragmentation warhead. Those grenades are fired at a rate of 400 rpm from a 29-rounds belt and may be used in indirect fire roles at up to about a kilometer and a half. This grenade launcher provides the M1992 with its anti-infantry firepower, along with perhaps the passengers’ own individual armament.

The 4th, 5th, and 6th vehicles during the 1992 parade. This photo gives a good perspective of the silhouette of the 9K111 missiles. Source: quizlet

To the rear of the infantry compartment, the vehicle’s anti-armor armament is mounted. It consists of a 9K111 “Fagot” wire-guided anti-tank missile. The type was introduced and likely pushed into local production in the Korean People’s Army during the 1980s, supplementing the 9M14 Malyutka (locally produced as the “Bulsae-1”). The North Korean-manufactured variant of the 9K111 is known as the “Bulsae-2”, though it is unknown whether the M1992 mounted original Soviet-delivered missiles or North Korean copies. The missiles which were delivered to North Korea were the slightly improved 9K111-2, which is believed to have an armor penetration of 460 mm when striking a flat plate.

There are no known views of the rear of the vehicle and, as such, whether or not some form of door for the infantry to exit is present is unknown. The vehicle is, however, known not to have any waterjets. On water, its movement is thus brought by the wheels and tires, which typically means the vehicle is slower and less maneuverable in water.

The vehicle’s armored protection is unknown, but seeing its size and construction, it likely is only protected against rifle-caliber bullets and small artillery fragments, likely being vulnerable to most ammunition from 12.7 mm onward. The vehicle’s dimensions and weight are not known, but definitely appear fairly moderate. While the mobility of the vehicle is not possible to estimate given the engine is unknown, the M1992 is likely somewhat mobile and agile, and it may have served as a scout vehicle in addition to an armored personnel carrier.

Multiple Rocket Launch System (MRLS) variant

MRLS M1992s during the 1992 parade. The vehicles being given numbers in the 150 onward may suggest at least 50 M1992 armored personnel carriers were manufactured, seeing as the first M1992 APC of the parade had the number 101. Source: m.blog.naver

During the same 1992 parade, a derivative of the M1992 vehicle was also showcased. In comparison to the APC variant, this model had the superstructure lowered to the rear of the driver and commander’s post. To the rear of this lowered part, the vehicle-mounted a battery of Chinese Type 63 107 mm rockets, very widely used by the Korean People’s Army. These are arranged in three rows of eight rockets, giving a total of 24 per salvo. The infantry compartment was likely re-arranged to stock more ammunition for the rocket launchers, but seeing as the vehicle remains small, it is likely only enough ammunition for a couple of additional salvos may be stored in the vehicle. It also is unknown whether or not this launcher may be rotated, or entirely depends on the vehicle’s movements to be aimed.

The Type 63 is a very common multiple rocket launcher in the Korean People’s Army, produced locally and used in massive numbers. It is notably found on the “Sonyon” variant of the 323 armored personnel carrier, a version that replaces the turret for a battery of rockets, while otherwise keeping the infantry-carrying capacities. The Type 63’s 107 mm rockets have a limited range of around 8 km and fire 18.8 kg rockets with a fairly limited explosive charge of 1.3 kg. The system is however very cheap, and easy to assemble in batteries of multiple launchers. This gives it a good potential to saturate a designated zone, which is likely how it is used in the Korean People’s Army, alongside some much larger and longer-range rockets also operated by the DPRK.

Air Defence Variant

A view of the anti-aircraft variant, with its battery of four 9K38 Igla missiles mounted in the place of the Type 63 rocket launchers. Source: Oryx Blog

In an exhibition somewhat more recent than 1992, a third variant of the M1992 was observed. This variant retains the hull of the MRLS variant, with a lowered superstructure rear of the crew’s post. Instead of a battery of Type 63 rockets, it instead mounts a rotatable battery of four man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). In this case, the vehicle features four 9K38 Igla missiles or a locally-manufactured variant.

When this variant was developed is unknown, however, the rarity of the M1992 means it likely dates from around the same era as the two other models. It was not shown during the 1992 parade for unknown reasons. The 9K38 is very commonly mounted on all kinds of military vehicles in recent North Korean parades, suggesting the proliferation of the missile as an attempt to counter the overwhelming close-air support advantage the forces of the Republic of Korea & United States would have in a conflict. The M1992 variant could have provided light anti-aircraft vehicles for motorized convoys, typically using M1992-type vehicles. This is not the case probably, as the family has not been widely adopted in the KPA’s service.

Conclusion – A “one-off” that was seemingly never adopted in massive numbers

A quick look at the M1992 may give it a somewhat ambitious look. With three different versions assuming vastly different roles – armored personnel carrier/potentially scout vehicle, self-propelled multiple rocket artillery, and self-propelled air-defense system – the type may have seemed like a wheeled APC the Korean People’s Army may have attempted to standardize on. However, this was in no way the case.

A poor-quality photo of rows of M1992s during the 1992 parade. A fairly considerable number of vehicles were showcased during this first, and last parade of the type. They may very well have been all the M1992s ever manufactured, or close to. Source: artzmari.egloos

The M1992 was never seen in service outside of the 1992 parade, and the only other time it was seen at all was in a military exhibition in which a number of prototypes were also shown. Ever since 1992, no footage of the Korean People’s Army using the vehicle has been found, despite a large number of parades showcasing most of the KPA’s armored vehicles inventory. In all likelihood, it would appear the M1992 was never adopted in massive numbers by the Korean People’s Army. Though the 1992 parade suggests several dozen were built, production likely ended at that, or not a whole lot more. Why the North Koreans choose not to adopt the vehicle in massive numbers is unknown. Perhaps the vehicle suffered from a number of issues, or perhaps the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the following disaster that the 1990s were for North Korea meant foreign, commercially-available parts could no longer be procured easily.

The Korean People’s Army policy of pretty much never retiring military vehicles which are still working means the M1992 likely still sees some service somewhere in North Korea. However, since it was first seen, a new North Korean-produced wheeled armored personnel carrier, with a scout variant, has been introduced: the BTR-80-inspired M2010. With this type, the KPA finally appears to have found a North Korean-produced wheeled APC to settle on. This means a preferred successor has been found to fulfill the role of the old M1992.

The M1992 armored personnel carrier. Illustration by Yuvnashva Sharma and funded by our Patreon campaign

M1992 specifications

Wheels 4×4
Crew Likely 2 (driver, commander)
Passengers Likely 6
Armament 30 mm AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher, 9K11 Fagot/Bulsae-1 Anti-Tank Guided Missile
Armor Very light (likely no more than rifle-caliber bullets protection)
Engine Diesel
Mobility Amphibious (no waterjet/movement assured by wheels & tires)

Sources

THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun, Stijn Mitzer, Joost Oliemans
Oryx Blog – North Korean vehicles

Categories
Cold War North Korean Armor Modern North Korean Armor

M1989/M1992 Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun

Nation Flag IconNorth Korea (likely 1980s-present)
Self-Propelled anti-aircraft gun – Unknown numbers built

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has, since the 1960s and 1970s, maintained an armored vehicles industry that produces vehicles to meet the needs of a Korean People’s Army that struggles to get modern foreign vehicles imported. Though this initially started with fairly simple armored personnel carriers like the 323, and tanks like the M1981 or Chonma-Ho, North Korea would quickly start developing vehicles which require more significant development efforts. The M1989/M1992 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun is a good example of one of the more advanced vehicles North Korea was able to field from the late 1980s onward.

Previous North Korean self-propelled anti-aircraft guns

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK, often just known as North Korea, ever since its inception in the months following the end of World War Two, has been an adversary to the Republic of Korea (ROK). While the DPRK formed the pro-Soviet North, with a hard branch of the Marxist-Leninist ideology that would evolve into its own ideology combining socialist and nationalistic elements, Juche, the South, despite being for much of its history a dictatorial regime as well, would be closely aligned with the United States. The 1950-1953 Korean War demonstrated the Americans and their side of the peninsula’s capacities to take air superiority, and use it to massively handicap the movements, combat capacities, but also daily functioning of the northern country via massive bombings.

Air defense has, as such, been a major concern for the DPRK. Fixed air defence, for example, comes in the form of a vast ring of missile and artillery batteries around the capital, Pyongyang, but there is also the mobile air defence of its military forces. This materialized as early as the first days of the new North Korean Army in 1948, with trucks armed with anti-aircraft machine guns, but North Korea’s self-propelled anti-aircraft guns would mostly blossom from the 1970s onward. There were several factors for this. One was the fact that North Korea had developed a vast armored vehicles manufacturing industry, eventually being able to manufacture its own vehicles. Another, was the Soviet delivery of a small batch of ZSU-23-4s Shilkas which would provide a good technical basis.

A first primitive self-propelled anti-aircraft gun mounted dual 37 mm guns on the chassis of the Tokchon series of self-propelled artillery pieces, known as the M1978. A few years later, the M1985 was introduced. It used a hull directly based on the Shilka’s GMZ-575 hull. However, its armament was still primitive, basically using the ZSU-57-2’s 1950s-dated weapon system, with no form of radar guidance. A great leap forward was still needed to bring North Korea’s self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery to a reasonably modern level.

This would, at least partly, be accomplished by the vehicle known by the US Department of Defence (DoD) as the M1989. It ought to be noted that this vehicle has also been known as the M1992 by the same US DoD – for the sake of clarity, this article will solely use the M1989 designation. It also ought to be noted that this year-based designation is based on the year the vehicle was first observed in service. It is very common for the vehicle to have been in service with the DPRK for several years by the point it is first seen by Western observers. In the case of the M1989, while its development is extremely nebulous, as the DPRK’s always is, it appears American intelligence reported having spotted a prototype as early as late 1983 – suggesting a development process concentrated around, or at least starting, in the early 1980s.

Rows of M1985 with their guns elevated on parade. The predecessor of the M1989, with no guidance other than optical targeting and seemingly no way to target enemies at ground level, the M1985 was a very much obsolete design as soon as it was introduced. Its most significant achievement was most likely to put North Korea’s Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun (SPAAG) program to a good start, which would be developed much further into the M1989. Source: m.blog.naver

Guns from the navy

The M1989 appears to be quite directly based on the ZSU-23-4 Shilka, of which North Korea received a few examples from the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. One of the few self-propelled anti-aircraft systems received by North Korea (there has never been evidence of the country receiving the ZSU-57-2, nor the 250 ZSU-57-2 turrets that would be mounted on Type 59 hulls, as is often claimed), it was still a modern and feared weapon by the 1970s and would largely inspire North Korea’s engineers. In the case of the M1989, the most significant difference from the Shilka would be its armament.

Ever since the end of the Korean War and particularly the 1960s, the Korean People’s Army Navy (KPAN) has been building up a large fleet of coastal surface vessels, mostly torpedo boats, missile boats and gunboats. North Korea could indeed never hope to challenge the US Navy in open waters, even less so with the support of the Republic of Korea’s Navy or Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force. Instead, its fleet has largely been manufactured around harassment and massed missile attack tactics – a role for which torpedo and missile boats tended to be sorely needed. North Korea would obtain three different types from the Soviet Union in the 1960s: first the Komar, the world’s first operational missile boat; and later, around 1968, the Osa I; as well as the torpedo-launching Shershen-class – with a dozen of the first and four of the later being delivered. Outside of their P-15 Termit missile or their torpedo armament, both the Osa and Shershen-class featured another weapon system of interest to North Korea. This was the AK-230, a dual 30 mm anti-aircraft gun and Close-In Weapon System (CIWIS).

Future North Korean leader Kim-Jong Il observes one of the two Najin-class frigates from the deck of the solo Soho-class helicopter frigate, likely in the 1980s. One may observe an AK-230 system located behind the funnel. Two Najin-class frigates were built in the 1970s, one on each of North Korea’s coasts, in order to serve as command ships. Hopelessly outdated by modern standards, they remain the largest ship built by North Korea’s naval defence industry. Source: reddit

The Osa- and Shershen-torpedo and missile boat classes had been the first ships to mount the AK-230 – each operating two of the dual guns, one at the bow and one at the stern. The guns were guided by an MR-104 “Drum Tilt” pulse-only radar system. As CIWIS, these guns had been designed with the task of potentially destroying missiles, which, even more so than an anti-aircraft role, would require a very fast rate of fire. To solve this solution, Soviet engineers designed the two guns that would be present in one AK-230 system as four, rifle-barrelled revolver cannons, each firing at 1,000 rounds per minute and disposing of a 500-rounds belt. Their barrels were 1,930 mm long, and the guns overall were 2,670 mm long and weighed in at 155 kg each.

This gun system would fire electrically-primed 30×210 mm rounds, which had been purposely designed for the system. Two types were provided, an 1.12 kg explosive round with an explosive charge of 30 grams of the standard Soviet A-IX 2 explosive, and an armor-piercing traced round weighing in at ten grams heavier (1.13 kg) but fired at the same muzzle velocity of 1,050 m/s.

These guns were linked at an MR-104 Drum Tilt radar system for guidance. This radar design could locate targets at a maximum range of 22.4 km and an altitude of 9.1 km. The guns would, ballistically, have a maximum range of over six kilometers, but would realistically have a chance to operate effectively against their targets at ranges of four kilometers maximum, and lower.

Naval guns onto a ground vehicle’s turret

A closer view of an AK-230 on a North Korean torpedo boat, The turret retains a moderate size, but adapting its armament to be fired from a manned armored vehicle turret would still require some considerable work. Source: m.blog.naver

When looking at the AK-230’s performances, it is easy to see some favorable points in comparison to the ZSU-23-4’s main armament, despite the latter being more than decent when first introduced. Though the rate of fire of the Shilka’s quad armament would be superior (3,400 to 4,000 rounds per minute total, in comparison to 2,000 from the AK-230), the naval gun offered slightly higher velocity and larger shells. This resulted in a longer effective range, spanning up to around four kilometers in good conditions and still up to two and a half in worse ones – while two and a half kilometers were generally considered around the limit of the Shilka’s effective firing range, which would go down further in bad conditions. The larger shells also packed a higher punch which would result in more destructive potential by a limited number of hits – particularly at range.

These advantages likely pushed North Korea engineers to try and adapt the AK-230 into a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun design. It ought to be noted that the KPAN only used the AK-230 in a very limited number of designs ever since it started the mass-production of missile and torpedo boats, following the Soviet deliveries from the 1960s which provided inspiration. A locally-manufactured copy of the Osa I-class, the Soju, manufactured since the 1980s, despite its obsolescence by this point, appears to mount the AK-230. The three largest ships ever manufactured for the DPRK’s navy, the two Najin-class frigates and the unique Soho-class helicopter frigate, appear to mount some as well, perhaps delivered straight from the Soviet Union, seeing as these classes were commissioned from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. Indigenous North Korean designs, however, appear to more often than not retain the primitive 25 mm 2M3 autocannon, using only optical guidance.

As such, the choice to study a version of the AK-230 for the army, despite the gun seeing limited use in the branch it was originally used by, the navy, shows the high priority which was given to providing good air cover to North Korea’s armed forces, and particularly its armored divisions and regiments.

North Korea’s AK-230-based design was placed into a turret very similar to the one found on the ZSU-23-4 in terms of general architecture, but appears to be higher, more rectangular, and perhaps simpler. It is a fairly large rectangular turret with large stowage boxes on both sides. At the turret’s center, a high-elevation gun mount allows the target system to engage all types of aircrafts. To the rear center of the turret, as on the ZSU-23-4, the M1989 features a radar – though in appearance it is quite similar to the Shilka’s RPK-2 “Tobol”, the radar used by North Korea’s vehicle is thought to most likely have still been based on the MR-104 “Drum Tilt” – mainly for the reason that radar had been purposefully designed to operate with the AK-230.

Close views of an M1989’s guns during a 2012 parade in Pyongyang, also showing some of the turret’s welds. Whether or not modifying the guns for operations inside an armored vehicle changed their anti-aircraft performances in any significant way is uncertain, and remains impossible to evaluate considering the secrecy maintained by the DPRK around their armored vehicles – particularly those not known to have an export history, of which the M1989 serves as a good example. Source: m.blog.naver

As pretty much systematically for North Korea, it is quite impossible to see how much the armament may have been modified, as no internal views of the vehicle are known to exist. Modifying the AK-230 to fit alongside the crew within the turret of an armored vehicle likely required some significant modifications. For example, the 500-rounds belt would perhaps not have been very practical and changed for a shorter belt, perhaps similar to the 50-rounds belt found in a classic Shilka. The use of electrically-primed projectiles, in addition to the high electrical needs already created by a turret with a high-rotation speed and the presence of a radar, would perhaps have required higher electricity generation capacities. This gun system would also likely add some weight to the original ZSU-23-4 to a moderate extent, perhaps nearing about 20 tonnes total. The crew likely consists of four, as on the ZSU-23-4, with a driver in the hull, and a commander, gunner, and crewman operating the radar in the turret.

Hull – Re-using the GMZ-575 copy

When North Korea first designed a Shilka-inspired self-propelled anti-aircraft gun in the form of the M1985, the hull chosen for the vehicle was a fairly close version of the GMZ-575 chassis, originally used by the ZSU-23-4. A few different details appeared nonetheless. The North Korean model appears to have different side stowage, with four stowage hatches to be found instead of three on the Shilka. The glacis may be angled a few degrees further back. While the M1985 lacked them, the M1989 appears to re-introduce towing hooks, though it only uses two instead of the Shilka’s three. The North Korean chassis also appears to use different tracks, with a central pin and two side pads. Its tracks appear to be more tensioned, generally resting higher, and it appears to use starfish-type road wheels similar to those found in Soviet main battle tanks, rather than the type used in lighter vehicles, such as the PT-76 or the ZSU-23-4.

A good side view of an M1989 during a 2012 parade. Though this photo gives a good view of the high profile given by the radar, it also shows the starfish-type road wheels used by the M1989. Source: m.blog.naver

There is no way to know if the North Korean version of the GMZ-575 retains the propulsive elements of the Shilka or instead moved to use another engine. The GMZ-575 chassis was originally based on the PT-76 light tank, which North Korea is thought to have assembled at the Sinhung tank plant in the late 1960s and 1970s. Therefore, it is likely the chassis was relatively easy to start to manufacture. North Korea operates a number of other vehicles in a similar weight range, notably the variety of vehicles based on the 323 armored personnel carrier and the M1981 light tank. It is not impossible to think the North Koreans may have tried to introduce some part commonality between their fleet, but this is pretty much just conjecture.

If the North Korean version is believed to have similar capacities to the original GMZ-575, for example, if it kept the V-6P1 280 hp diesel engine or used a powerplant of similar capacities, it likely means the M1989 should be able to reach a maximum speed of about 50 km/h. Overall, it would be somewhat less mobile than main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles due to a lower power-to-weight ratio.

The first truly modern SPAAG in the KPA’s hands

Production of the M1989 started at some point during the 1980s. Seeing as it used the same hull as the M1985, the more advanced M1989 likely took the first type’s succession on North Korea production chains.

Footage of M1989s during training exercises, showcased to the DPRK’s viewership by Korean Central TV. The vehicles are painted in a dark green scheme with a North Korean roundel and seemingly no further identification. Source: reddit

In comparison to the previous M1985, the M1989 brought massive improvements. While the M1985 itself had been a major progress from the M1978 and various ZPU-4 systems mounted on hulls based on the 323 APCs, it still offered a primitive armament, albeit in the form of a truly dedicated, purpose-built air defence system. The M1989 took that base – the hull basically – and mounted an at least somewhat capable, radar-guided armament on it. The M1989 could hardly be called state-of-the-art by its 1980s introduction. It obviously paled in comparison to modern systems introduced in the 1980s, such as the Soviet 2M22 Tunguska, with its missile batteries, advanced radar and newer 30 mm guns, but it was still likely an improvement from the ZSU-23-4 Shilka in terms of firepower. And while the Shilka was a quite old design by the 1980s, it had still proven to be an effective one which was considerably feared by NATO in its prime days of the 1960s and 1970s. Even with a fairly primitive radar, a similar vehicle featuring somewhat longer-reaching guns was a significant addition to the Korean People’s Army arsenal and could pose a solid threat to the helicopter and close-air support planes fleets that would be operated by South Korea and the United States in case of a conflict.

Ever since it was first seen in the late 1980s, the M1989 has been a regularly recurring sight in the military parade in which the DPRK flexes its military and military-industrial muscles.

Rows of M1989s on parade at Kim-Il Sung square in Pyongyang. As in North Korean tradition, the three leading vehicles each bear a different flag. From front to back, the national flag, the flag of the Korean Worker’s Party, and the flag of the Korean People’s Armed Forces. Source: pinterest

An advanced, more modern SPAA system… that has yet to be seen

The M1989 is the most often seen of all North Korean self-propelled anti-aircraft guns ever since its introduction, this trend continuing in recent parades. Nonetheless, it does not appear to be the latest self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. An even more advanced model known as the M1994 is said to exist. Iit also uses an armament based on Soviet CIWIS, but instead of the AK-230, it takes the basis of the AK-630 30 mm rotary autocannon, firing shorter 30×165 mm shells at a whopping 5,000 rounds per minute, while also featuring two radars. One radar is for long-range target acquisition and the other for short-range tracking. It would also feature some optional side boxes for light anti-air missiles, likely a local version of the Igla. All in all, it sounds like a potent and particularly innovative vehicle by the DPRK’s standard. No photos or iconographic documents of it appear to have transpired and be publicly available though, and as such, how operational such a system may be is questionable.

Conclusion – The aging anti-aircraft shield of North Korea’s armored formations

By what can be readily observed of the Korean People’s Army – an obviously limited insight into what is going on in its entirety, seeing the secretive nature of the country and its armed forces – the M1989 appears to be the most common self-propelled anti-aircraft gun in North Korea’s service, as well as most likely the most modern one available in any significant number. In comparison to the vehicle it was based on, the M1989 may have brought some genuine improvements, and have been a fairly potent if not state-of-the-art vehicle by the point it was introduced.

M1989s on parade in 2012, with North Korean citizens cheering from the side. The M1989 certainly was a huge improvement in North Korea’s SPAAGs when first introduced, likely the biggest single lap undertaken in this field by the DPRK. Its capacities against modern aircraft will probably be not enough though. Source: m.blog.naver

In comparison to more modern vehicles though, the M1989 slowly but surely starts to pale. Most significantly, it finds itself in the uneasy position of having to face some potent and well-equipped air forces. The Republic of Korea Air Force’s has not yet entirely retired its fleets of F-4 Phantom and F-5E Tiger II aircraft that may still prove to be vulnerable targets to the M1989, as well as the army’s attack and transporter helicopters fleet, which still rely on some older type such as upgraded versions of the AH-1 Cobra. However, newer models of aircraft used by the ROKAF may prove too much to be handled by the aging system. The threat of multirole F-15s, F-16s, F-35s, T-50s and, in the future, perhaps even the new KF-21, being used for precision strikes with anti-radiation missiles or laser-guided bombs would likely leave the M1989 and its 1960s vintage radar (and much of North Korea’s numerous but outdated anti-aircraft defenses in general) unable to offer a credible defense. If the Korean conflict is to become hot again, the masses of North Korean armored vehicles, already facing numerous but modern South Korean tanks, would likely very much be under the threat of the South’s aircraft – not even considering the tremendous air power that the United States could potentially deploy. Despite all of North Korea’s efforts, denying the skies to their potential enemies seems to be too much of a hurdle to overcome for the isolated and impoverished “Hermit Kingdom”.

The first prototype of South Korea and Indonesia’s new KF-21 “Boramae” 4.5 generation fighter, unveiled on 9th April 2021. Though this type is only scheduled to take its first flight in 2022 and enter service in the second half of this decade, South Korea already operates a number of modern multirole aircraft, notably F-15s, F-16s, F-35s and, to an extent, the T-50 trainer in its TA-50 light attack and FA-50 light attack/fighter versions. The ability of the DPRK’s air defenses is uncertain when it comes to countering those. It becomes even more precarious when the ominous air components of the USAF, US Navy and US Marine Corps, as well as potentially Japan’s own Air Self-Defence Force, are taken into account. Source: Blog before flight
Illustration for the M1989/M1992 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, created by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet and funded by our Patreon campaign

M1989/M1992 specifications

Weight ~ 20 tons
Suspension Torsion bars
Maximum speed (road) ~ 50 km/h
Crew Likely 4 (driver, commander, gunner, radar operator)
Armament AK-230 based 30×210 mm dual gun system
Rate of fire 2,000 rounds per minute maximum
Maximum effective range ~4 km in good conditions
Radar North Korean design likely based on MR-104 “Drum Tilt”
Armor Very light (likely no more than the ZSU-23-4, aka 15mm maximum)

Sources

THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun, Stijn Mitzer, Joost Oliemans
Oryx Blog – North Korean vehicles
Self-propelled anti-aircraft guns of the Soviet Union, Mike Guardia, Osprey Publishing
https://weaponsystems.net/system/899-30x210mm%20Soviet
https://weaponsystems.net/system/648-30mm%20AK-230

Categories
Cold War North Korean Armor Modern North Korean Armor

M1985 Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun

Nation Flag IconNorth Korea (1980s-today)
Self-Propelled anti-aircraft gun – Unknown numbers (mass-produced)

Ever since the creation of the Korean People’s Army as the standing force of the North Korean state in 1948, the army had to deal with the threat of a US-supported South. The Republic of Korea, or South Korea, would typically benefit from air superiority due to the large involvement of the US Air Force on their side. As early as the pre-1950 build-up, some primitive self-propelled anti-aircraft guns could be found in the form of GAZ-AAs trucks armed with 12.7 mm machine guns.

The rise of indigenous North Korean self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery would mostly start in the 1970s though. During this time, due to a large build-up of North Korea’s military industry that was started by the local production or assembly of T-55s and PT-76s, North Korea was starting to diversify its production. It introduced a number of indigenous designs based on whatever Soviet or Chinese technology was available. Though a first self-propelled anti-aircraft gun was found in the form of the M1978, made on the hull of the Tokchon series of self-propelled artillery pieces and mounting two 37 mm Type 65 autocannons of Chinese origins, this was only a fairly primitive vehicle. Somewhat more advanced vehicles would be manufactured in the coming years – the M1985 being the first of a series of vehicles based on the hull of the Soviet ZSU-23-4 Shilka.

North Korea and the ZSUs: a complex and misunderstood relationship

The operation of the Soviet Union’s self-propelled anti-aircraft guns by North Korea – both the ZSU-57-2 and the ZSU-23-4 – is an often misunderstood subject. North Korea does not actually appear to have operated any of the two types in massive numbers. There is no tangible evidence of North Korea having even operated the ZSU-57-2 at all. Though a rumor states North Korea received 250 ZSU-57-2 turrets, which it mounted on Chinese Type 59 hulls, there have never been any solid sources backing such a claim up, nor photographic evidence, and this is likely a myth. The ZSU-57-2 was certainly known by North Korean engineers, and it appears to have inspired the M1985 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns in some ways, but it may have never set track on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea is, however, known to have received a small number of ZSU-23-4 Shilkas from the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. There exists some very limited photographic evidence of these Shilkas, and only a small number were likely received. They did, however, have a deep influence on the development of North Korea’s own self-propelled anti-aircraft guns.

North Korean officials in front of two self-propeleld anti-aircraft gun; to the left a 30 mm-armed M1989, and to the right one of the rare North Korean ZSU-23-4s Shilkas. Source: THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun

The M1985: ZSU-57-2’s guns on a Shilka’s legs.

As the name it was given by the US Department of Defence implies, the M1985 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun was first observed in 1985. The actual date of its origin is unknown. We know that a prototype of the more advanced M1989 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun was spotted as early as 1983, and the M1985 likely predates this more advanced system. It may even have been part of the several vehicle models introduced in the late 1970s/early 80s alongside the M1981 Shin’Heung and the Chonma-Ho. The M1985, using mostly off-the-shelf parts from Soviet designs, likely did not have a particularly long development cycle.

The vehicle could be very shortly described as mounting the ZSU-57-2’s armament of two S-68A 57 mm autocannons on a chassis copied from the GMZ-575 found on the ZSU-23-4.

North Korea’s version of the GMZ-575 chassis

The hull of the M1985 appears to be a visually almost identical copy of the ZSU-23-4’s GMZ-575 tracked chassis. Only a few differences may be seen. The North Korean model appears to have different side stowage, with four stowage hatches to be found instead of three on the Shilka. The glacis may be angled a few degrees further back. The M1985 also lacks the three towing hooks found on the ZSU-23-4’s lower front plate. The M1985 also appears to use different tracks, with a central pin and two side pads.

Another view of M1985 in the same 2012 parade as earlier. The hull is very similar, but not exactly identical, to the PT-76-based GMZ-575. Source: m.blog.naver

There is no way to know if the North Korean version of the GMZ-575 retains the propulsive elements of the Shilka or instead moved to use another engine. The GMZ-575 chassis was originally based on the PT-76 light tank, which North Korea is thought to have assembled at the Sinhung tank plant in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Therefore, it is likely that the chassis was relatively easy to start to manufacture. North Korea operates a number of other vehicles in a similar weight range, notably the variety of vehicles based on the 323 armored personnel carrier and the M1981 light tank. It is not impossible to think the North Koreans may have tried to introduce some part commonality between their fleet, but this is pretty much just conjecture.

If the North Korean version is believed to have similar capacities to the original GMZ-575, it likely means the M1985 should be able to reach a maximum speed of about 50 km/h, and overall be somewhat less mobile than main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles due to a lower power-to-weight ratio.

Firepower: A ZSU-57-2 that cannot aim its gun low enough

On this GMZ-575-based hull, the North Korean mounted what appears to be essentially a new, but quite simple turret. It has a very simple rectangular shape when looked at from the side, but there are two slightly angled front-sides plates. The turret sides appear separated into a lower and upper section; the upper one may perhaps be folded down in some way, though the use of such a feature is somewhat questionable. The armor protection of the turret, as the hull, is likely very low – probably only able to resist rifle-caliber projectiles at most.

A row of three M1985s on Kim-Il Sung square during a parade. The simple shape of the turret, but also its division between a lower and upper section, may be seen here. Source: reddit

The turret is open-topped, and features as its main armament a local version of the dual 57 mm S-68A gun system found on the ZSU-57-2. Whether or not any significant modifications were applied to these guns is unknown. If they were kept identical to the original Soviet guns, the system could fire up to 240 rounds a minute. This rate of fire is hampered by the use of hand-fed five-round clips, requiring very frequent reloads. The shells in themselves are very powerful for an anti-aircraft gun. The projectiles weigh 2.8 kg and contain a 1.2 kg charge of nitrocellulose powder for the High Explosive shells, while the Armor Piercing shells offer some very decent penetration capacities of up to 110 mm or armor at 500 m – enough to deal with the vast majority of armored vehicles lighter than main battle tanks. These guns offer a strong recoil, which may be felt more strongly on the lighter GMZ-575-based hull than on the original ZSU-57-2. As on the ZSU-57-2, the operation of these guns is likely managed by four men, a gunner, two loaders and a sight adjuster. This would increase to five if the commander is included.

While powerful in theory, the operation of these guns is very much primitive even by the standards of the 1980s, let alone modern ones. With only optical sights, they are woefully outdated against modern planes, and while they may be effective against helicopters, those may typically identify the target, process it and send a missile on the way of an M1985 way before it can accurately estimate the range and start to fire. Against armored vehicles, the M1985 once again faces an issue, though a much simpler one. Simply put, the turret found on the M1985 does not appear to allow for anything but positive elevation. When looking at the turret, it does not appear the guns have enough space to target anything below their level. In other words, they would be unable to find an angle to fire against ground targets in the vast majority of scenarios. This appears to be a massive oversight. Considering whatever little views we have of the M1985, perhaps a way the vehicle could target ground targets – for example by lowering the turret’s side panels – may exist. It has, however, never been seen. The guns also feature a travel lock going up from the front of the hull.

Crewmen of an M1985 saluting from the open turret during a parade, with a flag of the Korean Worker’s Party in the forefront. Source: m.blog.naver

Operation by the Korean People’s Army

The M1985 has been in service of the Korean People’s Army at least since the early 1980s, but, as almost systematically with North Korean armor, details of its service use are pretty much non-existent. In comparison to previous types, such as the M1978 Tokchon-based self-propelled anti-aircraft gun or the M1983/M1984, which appear to be little more than a ZPU-4 quadruple 14.5 mm machine gun mounted on a 323 hull, the M1985 brings somewhat of an improvement, as a more mature self-propelled anti-aircraft design. However, this does not prevent it from being entirely obsolete in the era it was fielded in. Mounting an armament designed for an era in which it would face early jet fighters and primitive helicopters, it would be fielded at a point in which jet fighters could fly well past Mach 2, and helicopters, such as later versions of the AH-1 Cobra, or soon the new AH-64 Apache, with advanced targeting systems, could likely make short work of a self-propelled anti-aircraft guns that has nothing but optical sights and old, powerful but low rate-of-fire guns.

The production numbers of the M1985 are unknown. The vehicle was spotted in a number of North Korean parades, including some recent ones, but the introduction of the much more advanced M1989 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, which seemingly uses the same chassis as the M1985 but features two radar-guided 30 mm guns, may mean that the M1985 only had a fairly short-lived production run. Nonetheless, the type remains in North Korean service today. The country has a policy of retaining armored vehicles in service way past the point of obsolescence (largely to outfit the very large army it maintains to defend itself, which could not be provided with enough material if only modern weaponry was retained) so it is not surprising to find a system with capacities similar to another one, which had its prime in the late 1950s, still be in main line service today.

Rows of M1985 with their guns elevated on parade. Though, in this way, the vehicle looks impressive, it is hopelessly outdated for modern warfare. Source: m.blog.naver

Conclusion – A stepping stone to more advanced self-propelled anti-aircraft gun designs

The M1985 could hardly be considered a decent self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. With an obsolete weapon system – by the late 1970s or early 1980s, while North Korea was introducing the M1985, Eastern Bloc countries were phasing out the ZSU-57-2 almost entirely – and no form of modern fire control, its firepower against air targets is very limited. Also, with seemingly no way of operating decently against ground targets either, the vehicle may have some very limited use overall.

Nonetheless, it remains an important stepping stone in North Korea’s path towards producing a modern self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. With the M1985, North Korea introduced its own version of the GMZ-575 chassis, which would then be used for the M1989 – mating this chassis with a Shilka-inspired turret armed with twin 30 mm guns based on the naval AK-230, with a targeting radar. An even more advanced vehicle featuring the same hull was mentioned, but with a turret armed with a 30 mm rotary cannon, once again based on a naval gun (the AK-630), as well as side-mounted man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), with both a long-range target acquisition and short-range tracking radar. No photos of this seemingly quite advanced vehicle, designated M1994 by the US Department of Defence, appear to be publicly available.

A close view of an M1989, likely from the same 2012 parade as earlier photos. The vehicle uses the same hull as the M1985, but its turret mounts an armament much more suited to fight against modern anti-air threats. Source: m.blog.naver
Illustration of the M1985, created by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet and funded by our Patreon campaign

M1985 specifications

Suspension Torsion bars
Maximum speed (road) ~ 50 km/h
Crew Likely 6 (driver, commander, gunner, two loaders, sight adjustor)
Armament Locally-manufactured version of the 57mm S-68A
Rate of fire 240 rounds per minute maximum
Armor Very light (likely no more than the ZSU-23-4, aka 15mm maximum)

Sources

THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun, Stijn Mitzer, Joost Oliemans
Oryx Blog – North Korean vehicles
Self-propelled anti-aircraft guns of the Soviet Union, Mike Guardia, Osprey Publishing

Categories
Modern North Korean Armor

M-2020, New North Korean MBT

Flag of North Korea - WikipediaNorth Korea (2020)
Main Battle Tank –  at least 9 built, probably more

10th October 2020 marked the 75th Anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), the far-left party of the totalitarian one-party Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This took place in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, through Kim Il-sung Street. During this parade, new and very powerful nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), which shocked the North Korean population and the whole world, as well as a new Main Battle Tank (MBT) that has intrigued many military analysts, have been shown for the first time, arousing great interest.

The New North Korean MBT passing through Kim Il-sung Street showing off their new layout. Source: topwar.ru

Development

Unfortunately, not much is known about this vehicle yet. The Chosŏn-inmin’gun, or Korean People’s Army (KPA), has not yet officially presented the new tank or given a precise name, as it does for each vehicle of its arsenal due to the North Korean strategy of not revealing any details about their military equipment. Thus, throughout this article, the vehicle will be referred to as “New North Korean MBT”.

However, it is an almost completely new design that seems to have very little in common with previous MBTs developed in North Korea. It is also the first vehicle developed after the Songun-Ho was presented in a parade, in the same place, in 2010.

North Korean tanks

In the very last phases of the Second World War, between August and September 1945, Iosif Stalin’s Soviet Union occupied, in agreement with the United States, the northern part of the Korean peninsula, going as far down as the 38th parallel.

Because of the Soviet occupation, which lasted for three years and three months, the charismatic Kim Il-sung, who had been a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese during the occupation of Korea in the ’30s, and then continued to fight the Japanese during their invasion of China, became captain of the Red Army in 1941, and, with this title, in September 1945, he entered Pyongyang.

Under his leadership, the newly formed country quickly broke off all relations with South Korea, under U.S. control, and became increasingly close to the two communist superpowers, the Soviet Union and the newly formed People’s Republic of China, which had recently ended its bloody civil war.

Most of the North Korean military’s early equipment was of Soviet origin, with thousands of weapons and ammunition and hundreds of T-34/76s, T-34/85s, SU-76s and IS-2s and Soviet-made aircraft arriving in North Korea.

The outbreak of the Korean War, which lasted from June 1950 to July 1953, completely broke any relationship with South Korea, pushing North Korea to become even closer to the two communist regimes, even if, after Stalin’s death, the ties with the Soviet Union began to deteriorate.

The Kim family’s MBTs

In the following years, North Korean armored formations’s core of T-34s started being largely supplemented by T-54 and T-55s. In the case of the T-55, as well as the PT-76, local assembly at least, if not full production, was initiated in North Korea from the late 1960s onward, giving a head start to the country’s armored vehicles industry. Bolstered by those Soviet deliveries, as well as Type 59, 62 and 63 from China, North Korea built a large armored force from the 1960s and 1970s onward.

Towards the late 1970s, North Korea began the production of its first “indegenous” main battle tank. The first tank produced by the North Korean nation was the Ch’ŏnma-ho (Eng: Pegasus), which started as a mere T-62 copy with minor and obscure modifications. Interestingly enough, despite some rumors of the contrary, North Korea is not known to have acquired any significant number of T-62s from abroad.

The Ch’ŏnma-ho went through a large number of evolutions and versions from its introduction to this day; in the west, those are often rationalized under the designations of I, II, III, IV, V and VI, but in truth those are nebulous, with quite a lot more than six configurations and variants existing (for example, both the Ch’ŏnma-ho 98 and Ch’ŏnma-ho 214 could be described as Ch’ŏnma-ho V, while on the other hand the vehicle described as the Ch’ŏnma-ho III has never been photographed and is not actually known to exist).

Ch’ŏnma-ho 214s, the last of the five-wheels Ch’ŏnma-hos, on the parade at Kim Il-Sung Square, Pyongyang Source: militarywatchmagazine.com

The Ch’ŏnma-ho have been in service since the last years of the 1970s, and while the obscure nature of North Korea means an estimation of their numbers is hard to come by, the tanks have obviously been produced in very large numbers (with some early models even being exported to Ethiopia and Iran) and have formed the backbone of North Korea’s armored force in the last decades. They have known considerable evolutions, which have often confused enthusiasts; the most notable example of this being the so-called “P’okp’ung-ho”, in fact the later models of the Ch’ŏnma-ho (215 and 216, first observed around 2002, which has led them to sometimes be called “M2002” as well), which, despite having added another roadwheel and numerous new internal and external components, remains Ch’ŏnma-hos. This has lead to considerable confusion when North Korea actually introduced a tank that was mostly new, the Songun-Ho, first seen in 2010, which featured a large cast turret with a 125 mm gun (whereas late Ch’ŏnma-hos had adopted welded turrets which appear to have mostly retained 115 mm guns) and a new hull with a central driving position. It ought to be noted that the later models of the Ch’ŏnma-ho as well as the Songun-Ho are often seen with additional, turret-mounted armaments; anti-tank guided missiles such as the Bulsae-3, light anti-aircraft missiles, such as locally-produced variants of the Igla, 14.5 mm KPV machine-guns, and even dual 30 mm automatic grenade launchers.

All of these vehicles have a clear visual, design and technological descendance from Soviet-style vehicles; it ought to be noted, however, that particularly in the last twenty years, the North Koreans vehicles have evolved quite considerably from their roots, and can hardly be called mere copies of vintage Soviet armor anymore.

Ch’ŏnma-ho 216s, the last known model of the Ch’ŏnma-ho, on the parade at Kim Il-Sung square. They feature a large array of additional weapons on the turret roof: dual ATGMs, dual AGLs and dual MANPADS. Source: snafu-solomon.com

Design of Kim’s new tank

The layout of the new North Korean MBT is, at first glance, reminiscent of standard Western MBTs, deviating significantly from previous tanks produced in North Korea. These older vehicles have obvious similarities to Soviet or Chinese tanks from which they are derived, such as the T-62 and T-72. In general, these tanks are of a smaller size compared to Western MBTs, designed above else to contain costs and for rapid transport by rail or air, while NATO MBTs are, as a rule, more expensive and larger providing a greater comfort to the crew.

The three-tone light sand, yellow, and light brown camouflage is also very unusual for a North Korean vehicle, reminding of the camouflage patterns used on armored vehicles during Operation Desert Storm in 1990. Recently, North Korean armor has had standard one tone camouflage of a shade really similar to the Russian one and a three camouflage, brown and khaki on a green base.

Analyzing the vehicle in detail, however, shows that, in reality, not all is what it seems.

Hull

The hull of the new tank is completely different from previous North Korean MBTs and is very similar to the modern Russian T-14 Armata MBT presented for the first time during the parade for the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Great Patriotic War on 9th May 2015.

The driver is placed centrally at the front of the hull, and has a pivoting hatch with two episcopes.

The running gear is composed, as on the T-14, of seven large diameter road wheels protected not only by usual side skirts, but also by a polymer skirt (the black one that can be seen in the picture), both present in the Armata. On the North Korean tank, the polymer skirt almost completely covers the wheels, obscuring most of the running gear.

As on nearly all the modern MBTs, the sprocket wheel is at the rear, while the idler is at the front.

The tracks are of new style for a North Korean tank. In fact, they seem to be a double pin rubber padded type of western derivation, whereas in the past, these single-pin tracks with rubber-bushed pins like the Soviet and Chinese ones.

The rear of the hull is protected by slat-armor. This type of armor, which protects the sides of the engine compartment, is often used on modern military vehicles and is effective against infantry anti-tank weapons with HEAT (High-Explosive Anti-Tank) warheads that have piezo-electric fusing, such as the RPG-7.

On the left side, the slat-armor has a hole to access the muffler, just like on the T-14. The only difference between the two tanks’ slat-armor is that, on the T-14, there are two mufflers, one on each side.

The similarities between the T-14 Armata’s hull (top) and the new North Korean MBT’s hull (down) are apparent. Sources: pinterest.com and topwar.ru

In the parade videos, at a certain point, one of the vehicles passes over a camera and it can be seen that the vehicle has torsion bar suspension.

The rear of the vehicle also reminds of the T-14 one, being higher than the front. This was probably done to increase the space available in the engine bay, probably in order to house an upgraded version of the 12-cylinders P’okp’ung-ho engine delivering, according to estimates from 1000 to 1200 hp.

Obviously, specifications such as maximum speed, range, or weight of the new MBT are unknown.

Highlighting some of the Russian T-14 Armata’s features. A quick glance reveals the similarities with the new North Korean vehicle. Source: eurasiantimes.com with highlights from author

Turret

If the hull, in its shape, reminds the T-14 Armata, the most modern MBT in the Russian Army, the turret vaguely reminds of that of the M1 Abrams, the standard MBT of the U.S. Army or the Chinese MBT-3000 export tank, also known as the VT-4.

Structurally, the turret is very different from that of an Abrams. In fact, the lower part of the turret has four holes for some grenade launcher tubes.

An M1A2 SEPv2 with Israeli APS Trophy. Source: pinterest.com with highlights from Author

It can therefore be assumed that the turret is made of welded iron and equipped with composite spaced armor mounted on it, as on many modern MBTs (for example the Merkava IV or Leopard 2). Consequently, its internal structure is different from the external appearance. The armor of some modern tanks, such as the M1 Abrams and Challenger 2, is made of composite materials that cannot be removed.

A detail that hints at this is the evident step that is visible between the sloped armor at the front and the roof, where there are the two cupolas for the vehicle commander and the loader.

On the right side of the turret is mounted a support for two missile launcher tubes. These can probably fire a copy of the 9M133 Kornet Russian Anti-Tank missiles or some anti-aircraft missile.

On the roof of the turret, there is what looks like a Commander’s Independent Thermal Viewer (CITV) on the right, in front of the commander’s cupola, a Gunner’s Sight just below it, a Remote Weapon System (RWS) armed with an automatic grenade launcher in the center and, on the left, another cupola with a fixed front episcope.

Above the cannon is a laser rangefinder, already present in that position on previous North Korean vehicles. On its left is what looks like a night vision camera.

There is also another fixed episcope on the right of the commander’s cupola, an anemometer, a radio antenna on the right and, on the left side, what may look like a cross-wind sensor.

On the rear, there is a space to put the crew’s gear or something else that covers the sides and rear of the turret and four smoke launchers for each side. On the rear and on the sides are three hooks to lift the turret.

Scheme showing the systems of the new North Korean MBT. Source: topwar.ru with highlights from author

Armament

We can deduce that the main armament is, like in the case of the Songun-Ho, the North Korean copy of the 125 mm Russian 2A46 tank gun and not the 115 mm North Korean copy of the Soviet 115 mm 2A20 cannon. The dimensions are obviously larger and it is also unlikely that the North Koreans would have mounted an older generation cannon on what appears to be such a technologically advanced vehicle.

From the photos, we can also logically assume that the cannon is not capable of firing ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles), which Russian 125 mm guns can do, because the vehicle is equipped with an external missile launcher.

On the barrel of the gun, in addition to the smoke extractor, like on the C1 Ariete or the M1 Abrams, is mounted an MRS (Muzzle Reference System) that constantly verifies the linearity of the main gun barrel with the gunner’s sight and if the barrel has distortions.

Another assumption that can be made is that the cannon is not equipped with an automatic loader system because there are three crew members inside the turret. The tank commander is behind the gunner, on the right side of the turret, and the loader on the left side. This can be assumed due to the fact that the CITV and gunner’s sight are one in front of the other on the right side, as on the Italian C1 Ariete, where the commander is seated behind the gunner and has similar positions for the optics.

The loader is seated on the left of the turret and has his personal cupola above him.

The secondary armament is composed of a coaxial machine gun, probably a 7.62 mm, mounted not in the gun mantlet but on the side of the turret, and an automatic grenade launcher on the turret, probably 40 mm caliber, controlled from inside the vehicle.

The position of the optics on the C1 Ariete is very similar to that of the new North Korean MBT. Source: pinterest.com with highlights from author

Protection

The vehicle appears to have ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) on the side skirts, as on the T-14 Armata and composite spaced armor covering the front and side of the turret.

There are a total of 12 grenade launcher tubes on the lower sides of the turret, in groups of three, six frontal and six lateral.

These systems are probably a copy of the anti-missile subsystem of the Afghanit APS (Active Protection System) of Russian production mounted on the T-14 Armata and on the T-15 Heavy Infantry Fighting Vehicle (HIFV).

The Russian Afganit is composed of two subsystems, a generic one consisting of small charges mounted on the roof of the turret, covering a 360° arc, that shoot small fragmentation grenades against rockets and tank shells, and an anti-missile one consisting of 10 large fixed grenade launchers mounted (5 per side) on the lower part of the turret.

The Afghanit Active Protection System mounted on a T-14 Armata. Source: offiziere.ch

Connected to the twelve grenade launchers, there are at least four radars, probably of the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) type. Two are mounted on the frontal composite armor and two on the sides. These are meant to detect incoming AT missiles aimed at the vehicle. If an AT missile is detected by the radars, the system automatically activates the APS that fires one or perhaps more grenades in the direction of the target.

There are also two devices mounted on the turret sides. These could be Laser Alarm Receivers used on the modern AFV or other sensors for the Active Protection System. If these are actually LARs, their purpose is to detect laser beams from enemy rangefinders mounted on tanks or AT weapons that are aiming at the vehicle and automatically activate the rear smoke grenades to hide the vehicle from the opposing optical systems.

Another photo of the turret clearly shows the six grenade launchers and the two frontal radars of the APS. Source: armyrecognition.com

The Starving Tiger

Communist North Korea is one of the most peculiar countries in the world, with an army to match. The country, often called the Hermit Kingdom, is currently subject to almost worldwide sanctions due to its ongoing nuclear program and nuclear bomb tests. This has largely deprived the country not only of the economic benefits of trade but also of many resources required for tank construction, most importantly foreign weapons, weapon systems, and minerals which the country cannot extract from its limited resources.

While North Korea has found ways of circumventing these sanctions and engaging in limited trade (including selling weapons to foreign countries), the country has an annual GDP of only 18 billion dollars (2019), more than 100 times smaller than that of South Korea (2320 billion dollars in 2019). The GDP of North Korea is close to that of such war-torn countries as Syria (16.6 billion dollars, 2019), Afghanistan (20.5 billion dollars, 2019), and Yemen (26.6 billion dollars, 2019).

In terms of GDP per capita, the situation is similar. At $1,700 per person (Purchasing Power Parity, 2015), the country is overtaken by such powerhouses as Haiti ($1,800, 2017), Afghanistan ($2000, 2017), and Ethiopia ($2,200, 2017).

Nonetheless, despite these worrying economic indicators, North Korea spends a massive 23% of its GDP (2016) on defense, which amounts to $4 billion. This is closer to more developed countries, such as South Africa ($3.64 billion, 2018), Argentina ($4.14 billion, 2018), Chile ($5.57 billion, 2018), Romania ($4.61 billion, 2018), and Belgium ($4.96 billion, 2018). It must be noted that none of the countries listed in this comparison are capable of developing a brand new MBT able to compete with the most modern Russian and American tanks.

North Korea is a massive weapons manufacturer, proving able to build thousands of MBTs, APCs, SPGs, and many other weapon types. They have also made many improvements and adaptations of foreign designs. While it is clear that the North Korean versions are definite improvements over the originals, the originals are usually half a century old. No serious institution, except, of course, the North Korean propaganda machine, can claim that the North Korean vehicles are superior or even comparable to the most modern vehicles from other countries.

Furthermore, the North Korean electronics industry is not in a position to produce the expensive and technologically complicated electronics systems (and their associated software) needed by modern MBTs. Even the local production of LCD screens involves acquiring many components and parts directly from China and then assembling them in North Korea, if not buying them whole from China and just stamping them with North Korean logos.

Given all these factors, it is rather curious that the otherwise feeble North Korean economy and military industry could develop, design, and construct an MBT with comparable characteristics and systems as the most modern and powerful vehicles from the United States and Russia.

The Soviet Afghanit system which the New North Korean MBT is trying to emulate was based on decades of Soviet experience in the field starting from the late 1970’s Drozd and going through the 1990s Arena. Similarly, the first American MBT to field APS protection is the M1A2C from 2015, which uses the Israeli Trophy system which entered production in 2017. Given that the USA, the largest economy in the world and the largest military spender in the world, did not develop its own APS system, it is extremely unlikely that the North Koreans were able to do so and emulate a highly advanced system such as Afghanit. While there is a chance that North Korea might have acquired this system from Russia, there is nothing to indicate that the Russians would be willing to sell this highly advanced system, let alone to a pariah state such as North Korea. A more likely import source would be China, which also has locally developed hard-kill APS.

Similar arguments can be made for the New North Korean MBT’s Remote Weapons Station, Advanced Infrared Camera, advanced composite armor, and main sights. It is highly unlikely that North Korea was able to develop and build these systems on its own. This leaves only two possible options: either these systems were acquired from abroad, most likely from China, which does seem improbable nonetheless, or that they are simple fakes meant to deceive its enemies.

The nine tanks shown in the 75th Party parade. Source: armyrecognition.com

The Lying Tiger

As in most nationalist-communist countries, propaganda plays a very important role in the ongoing functioning and perpetuation of the North Korean regime. It is spearheaded by the cult of personality for the current leader, Kim Jong-un, and for his forefathers, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, and of Korean exceptionalism. North Korean propaganda makes full use of the full censorship of information from the outside to paint all the rest of the world as a barbaric and monstrous place, from which the North Koreans are sheltered by the ruling Kim family and the North Korean state.

While North Korean propaganda plays an important role in perpetuating the North Korean regime internally through the vilification of the rest of the world, constant lying about the achievements of North Korea, and some outright fantastic claims (such that North Korea is the second happiest country in the world), its annual military parades are becoming more and more targeted to the outside, projecting North Korea’s power and dangerousness to its enemies.

These military parades have become a nearly yearly occurrence under the new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. Furthermore, they are broadcast live through the Korean Central Television, one of the state-owned broadcasters in North Korea. Furthermore, the television channel is broadcast for free outside North Korea’s borders. This is how the world found out so quickly about the new North Korean MBT presented in the 2020 parade.

However, this has allowed the military parades to become more than just an internal show of strength and military power. They are now also a way for North Korea to publicly broadcast its capabilities and intimidate any potential enemies.

What must be remembered at all times is that a military parade is not an accurate representation of the military power of a country nor of the capabilities of the vehicles presented. It is a show meant to present the army, its units, and its equipment in the best and most impressive light. The equipment presented does not have to be in use, fully developed, or even real to appear on a parade.
North Korea has a long history of being accused of presenting fake weapons on its parades. In 2012, a team of German military experts claimed that the North Korean KN-08 ICBMs presented at a parade in Pyongyang were just mock-ups. They also mentioned that the Musudan and Nodong missiles presented in a 2010 parade were just mock-ups and not the real thing.

Similar accusations emerged in 2017 from former military intelligence officer Michael Pregend, who claimed the North Korean equipment presented during a parade that year was unfit for combat, highlighting the AK-47 rifles with attached grenade launchers.

However, the fact of the matter is that it can not be proven either way. There is no way for actual military researchers to get access to North Korean technology and the North Koreans refuse to publicly release any information on their equipment. With parades being the only way to get a look at the newest North Korean military technology, it must be kept in mind that there is no guarantee that the systems shown are operational or fully developed or that they have all the capabilities that are presented. The information that can be gleaned from a parade is superficial, with most details that are crucial to understanding the capabilities of a modern weapon system being either inaccessible or obscured.

A poor quality photo showing off the MRS and the smoke extractor of the cannon. Source: topwar.ru

Conclusion

As with all new North Korean vehicles, it was immediately assumed that the vehicle was a fake to arouse astonishment and confuse Western analysts and armies. According to some, this is actually a Songun-Ho modified to fit new tracks and a seventh wheel in the running gear, but with a dummy superstructure.

Others claim it really is a vehicle of a new conception, but with the more advanced systems being fakes, either to deceive or to act as stand-ins until the real things are developed, like the remote weapon turret with a grenade launcher, the APS and its radars. In fact, these systems would be a big upgrade for North Korea, which has never showcased anything like this before.

With the entry into service in 2014 of the K2 Black Panther, North Korea also had to present a new vehicle that would be able to cope with the new South Korean MBT.

It could therefore be a mock-up to “scare” their southern brothers and show the world that they can militarily match more developed NATO armies.

The vehicle presented by Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea, seems like a very modern and technologically advanced vehicle. If Western analysts are not mistaken, it will be able to effectively confront, in a hypothetical conflict against NATO nations, the most modern Western vehicles.

Its profile is completely different from previous North Korean vehicles, showing that even North Korea, perhaps with the help of the People’s Republic of China, is able to develop and build a modern MBT.

However, it must be considered that, no matter how advanced the vehicle may be, North Korea will never be able to produce enough of them to be a threat to world security. The real threat from North Korea comes from its nuclear weapons and its vast conventional arsenal of artillery and missiles. The new tanks will be used as a deterrent against a possible South Korean attack.

A detail not to be underestimated is that the nine models presented on 10th October 2020 are probably pre-series models and that, in the coming months, production vehicles should be expected if this vehicle is really meant to see service.

One of the nine vehicles shown in the parade of 10th October 2020 by Ardhya ‘Vesp’ Anargha, fonded by our Patreon campaign

Sources

Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans – The Armed Forces of North Korea: On the Path of Songun

topwar.ru
armyrecognition.com
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8dZl9f3faY
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MupWgfJWqrA
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanctions_against_North_Korea#Evasion_of_sanctions
https://tradingeconomics.com/north-korea/gdp#:~:text=GDP%20in%20North%20Korea%20averaged,statistics%2C%20economic%20calendar%20and%20news.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-military-analysis-idUSKCN1VW03C
https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Data%20for%20all%20countries%20from%201988%E2%80%932018%20in%20constant%20%282017%29%20USD%20%28pdf%29.pdf
https://www.popsci.com/china-has-fleet-new-armor-vehicles/
https://www.northkoreatech.org/2018/01/13/a-look-inside-the-potonggang-electronics-factory/
https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/9/north-korea-to-show-strength-and-defiance-with-military-parade