Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Late 2000s-Present)
Armored Personnel Carrier – Unknown Number Built
North Korea has, since the 1960s, developed and expanded its military vehicles industry quite considerably. Starting out by locally assembling Soviet vehicles, the country progressively moved onto creating and manufacturing its own vehicles, more and more distinct from original Russian or Chinese inspirations. A key stepstone in this direction was the Cold War-era M1981 light tank, which, while it took inspiration from several Chinese and Soviet designs, was a clear copy or even derivative of none. Though several decades old by this point, a development on the hull of this light tank was first observed by the American Department of Defence in 2009 and given the designation of M2009. Also known as the Chunma-D, this is an armored personnel carrier development of the old light tank – a fairly ironic turn of the affair, as the M1981 itself was based on the chassis of the 323 APC.
The M2009 designation follows the standard naming scheme of the US Department of Defence for North Korean vehicles, referring to the year in which the vehicle was first observed in service. In North Korea, the vehicle appears to be known as the “Chunma-D” or, in other transliterations, “Junma-Lee”, with the meaning being the same. Chunma/Junma stands for racehorse, with Lee or D is a transliteration of the fourth letter of the Korean alphabet.
As pretty much systematic with North Korean vehicles, the development process of the M2009 is a mystery, with awareness of the vehicle coinciding with its appearance in service of the Korean People’s Army during military parades. Nonetheless, one can at least theorize the potential origins of such a vehicle.
The M2009 is a derivative of the M1981 light tank. Though already not state-of-the-art by the late 1970s/early 1980s when it was first introduced, this light tank has become progressively more obsolete over the decades. As the Republic of Korea Army supplemented its M48 Pattons tank with more and more of the K1, outclassing anything fielded by North Korea, the range of targets that could be engaged with hopes of destruction from the M1981’s 85 mm gun decreased accordingly. As such, it has been theorized the M2009 may have been introduced as a way to repurpose the M1981 assembly chain in order to produce a vehicle, in this case an armored personnel carrier, that would remain relevant – at least to an extent, as the M2009 is still far from a reasonably modern vehicle – and be less hopelessly outdated.
The M2009 is directly based upon the hull of the M1981, and maintains many of its components with little to no apparent changes. This is notably the case of the suspension and engine deck. The hull was originally inspired by the one used in the 323 APC, but lengthened. It uses a six road wheels design, with these road wheels being fairly similar in design to those used on the Soviet PT-76, and generally, Eastern Block amphibious tracked vehicles. The tank uses torsion bars suspension. As for the powerplant, its exact model is unknown, with both 320 and 240 hp engines of various origins having been mentioned. The vehicle notably features a couple of hydrojets, similar in design to the PT-76’s, in order to provide improved amphibious capacities. This feature goes all the way back to the 323, which introduced this to a hull based on the Chinese YW531A that moved on water thanks to the motion of its tracks. The only noticeable changes to the engine deck are the introduction of what appears to be a box – stowage of the Igla anti-air missile has been theorized – and changes to the engine cooling, with a single central grille instead of separate ones. The dimensions of the hull are likely about the same as the M1981, however, the new turret likely changes the height and overall length of the vehicle, and as such only the width can be estimated at about 3.10 m.
Where the vehicle differs from the M1981 is in terms of turret and combat compartment, these having been modified to transform the light tank into an armored personnel carrier. That being said, one may question whether these modifications were enough to create a viable vehicle of this type due to several questionable features.
In comparison to the M1981, the M2009 appears to have a slightly heightened combat compartment. This modification was likely introduced to give more space inside for the dismounts. The hull roof, notably, appears to continue to rise slightly upward, with the turret at its highest point, and not be perfectly flat.
The combat and crew compartment of the M2009 are located to the front. The rear engine configuration of the M1981 was retained on the APC, likely due to the additional costs and delays which would be caused by a deeper transformation of the hull. As a result, the infantry compartment appears to be located just under the turret of the M2009. Two firing ports are present on each side of the vehicle, under the turret. Behind these are what appear to be the main point where the dismounts enter and leave the vehicle, a square-shaped side door of fairly diminutive size. The engine compartment is located just behind, suggesting a limited infantry-carrying capacity, likely not exceeding four to six crew members. In front of the turret, hatches for the driver and either another crew member or perhaps a dismount are present.
The infantry accommodations on the M2009 can be described as fairly questionable at best. The vehicle does not feature rear doors, which is already a fairly archaic feature in modern personnel carriers. Rear doors allow for much easier and less risky evacuation of the vehicle, particularly under fire. In comparison, the side doors of the M1981 would typically provide significantly less protection, and exiting the vehicle under fire, in case of an ambush, for example, would be even riskier than on most other APCs. Not only that, but the diminutive size of the doors would also make the evacuation of the vehicle by soldiers in full gear much harder than on a vehicle with large opening rear doors.
The small space allocated for dismounts means the vehicle almost certainly has a lower infantry carrying capacity than the older 323, which also has the advantage of featuring rear doors. In short, in its primary role of carrying infantry, the 2000s Chunma-D proves inferior to the early 1970s 323. The latter has space for ten (according to North Korean sources even twelve) dismounts that can exit the vehicle from the rear, even though the rear door on the 323 has a fairly small size that can already be considered a fairly lackluster feature.
The other obvious change the M2009 has in comparison to the M1981 is the replacement of the 85 mm armed turret by another design. The M2009 features a cylindrical turret with two 14.5 mm KPV machine guns as main armament, as with the 323. However, the turret is of a different design. Though some inspiration was likely taken from the old APC’s turret, the M2009 ones introduces a variety of new features.
Though conical, the turret of the M2009 is of a wider type. It appears to retain a single crewmember, with a command cupola located to the rear of the turret. A large boxy bustle, likely for stowage, is also present.
Though the main armament of the turret remains the same two 14.5 mm KPV machine guns of the 323 – an armament which was quite heavy for an APC in the early 1970s, but of which the power is now more moderate, as more heavily protected armored personnel carriers tend to become the norm – the design also introduces a coaxial 7.62 mm. While it may seem a little redundant, this may allow for fire on less important and lighter targets to consume less ammunition. Another addition in comparison to the 323 turret is an external infrared searchlight, likely linked to the main armament by braces, as is often the case on North Korean vehicles. Also included are smoke dischargers, three on each side of the turret, a feature that started being observed on M1981s from 2015 onward.
Similar, though not identical turret designs to the M2009 have been observed on the M2010, a series of 8×8 and 6×6 wheeled armored personnel carriers based on the BTR-80 and introduced around the same time in the Korean People’s Army.
North Korean Classic: The Igla
North Korean vehicles, for a long time, but especially in recent years, have very often been observed with man-portable anti-aircraft defense systems (MANPADS) stuck onto the vehicles, from the turret of tanks and APCs to even the fixed superstructure of closed or even open-topped self-propelled artillery pieces. Though some of these have been speculated to be only for show, for example, the large Igla battery present on some 323s during a 1992 parade, some may be functional. It ought to be noted that footage of North Korean armored vehicles in training, outside of parade, often shows the vehicles with the missiles omitted.
The M2009 was first seen without an Igla. However, the vehicle always had some sort of rectangular box just rear of the turret, which has been theorized to actually be storage for the Igla missile launcher. The vehicle quickly appeared with an Igla mounted, as early as 2013 and perhaps even earlier. The missile is fixed to the rear of the turret bustle, which raises questions as to its operation, as it likely is hard to access it from the commander cupola, which is located further forward. A single photo tends to suggest a more forward mount is possible though.
Conclusion – A Questionable Armored Personnel Carrier
The M2009 is, as of today, the most recent tracked armored personnel carrier which has been spotted in the ranks of the KPA. However, it could easily be described as a fairly questionable design.
Though the turret of the vehicle is likely more advanced than the old 323, the vehicle itself appears to be a far worse platform when it comes to carrying infantry. With a dismount compartment located just under the turret, the infantry complement of the vehicle is likely very moderate. With the engine to the rear being retained, the only option to exit the vehicle for the infantry appears to be small side doors – a very inefficient exit means, and one which is likely very dangerous if the vehicle were ever to fall victim to an ambush. Though the numbers of M2009 produced are obviously unknown, the vehicle has little chance of ever coming close to replacing the ubiquitous 323 armored personnel carrier – which is likely for the better. While it may fare better than the 323 if given, for example, purely reconnaissance or infantry support tasks, the M2009 appears far worse as an infantry carrying platform, with the improved combat capacities likely far too little to justify the vehicle’s defects, particularly as South Korean infantry fighting vehicles such as the K21 and the small fleet of BMP-3 provide massively superior combat features.
M2009 Chunma-D specifications (estimations)
3.10 m (estimation)
Between the 323 (~15 tonnes) and the M1981 (~20 tonnes)
Unknown (Perhaps a 320 hp 8-cylinders air-cooled diesel engine or a 6-cylinders water-cooled 240 hp diesel engine)
Maximum speed (road)
~60 km/h (estimation from M1981)
Maximum speed (water)
~10 km/h (estimation from M1981)
500 km (estimation from M1981)
Observation suggests 3 (commander, driver, co-driver), perhaps 2 if co-driver is in fact just a dismount
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (1993-Present)
Multiple Rocket Launcher System (MRLS) – Unknown Number Produced
A major facet of the Korean People’s Army arsenal is the large quantity and variety of Multiple Rocket Launcher Systems (MLRS) it operates. Ever since the 1970s, and increasingly so in the next decades, a vast program was carried out to create a large and diverse fleet of vehicles. Starting from systems purchased from the Soviet Union and China, North Korea has increasingly introduced its own systems, some of which are actually mostly indigenous and somewhat competitive, notably the 240 mm systems first seen in the 1980s. In recent years, the even larger 300 mm KN-09, with seemingly very long-range, high accuracy, and large warheads, has been introduced.
However, these larger and longer-range systems sometimes obscure the large quantities of much simpler but still important systems. These provide the Korean People’s Army with the close-range firepower saturation it needs to hope to deliver large quantities of suppression to enemy forces. They are largely needed as North Korea is vastly unable to deliver suppressive firepower through other means considering the general obsolescence of the Korean People’s Army Air Force. Perhaps the most common light mobile Multiple Rocket Launcher System in service in the Korean People’s Army is the 107 mm Type 63 MLRS mounted on the Sungri-61NA truck, both of which are very common equipment of the KPA on their own.
The Sungri Motor Plant is a major automotive manufacturer within North Korea. It is based in the city of Tokchon, north of Pyongyang. Although founded in 1950, the factory would only begin producing vehicles in 1958. Until recently, when Pyeonghwa Motors superseded it, Sungri Motor Plant was the largest automotive manufacturer in the country. Nonetheless, the Sungri Motor Plant remains the largest truck manufacturer to this day. ‘Sungri’ means “Victory” in Korean.
The most common Sungri trucks are based on the Soviet GAZ-51 family of trucks. The GAZ-51 was a truck with an empty weight of 2.7 tonnes and with a load weight of 2.5 tonnes. The first Sungri truck, the Sungri-58, was a crude copy of the GAZ-51, which was overall very similar to the original 1946 GAZ-51, but was generally of lower production quality. Sungri-58 production would continue in the following decades and improved types would even be introduced in the 1970s, but the Sungri Motor Plant also began production of the Sungri-61 in 1961. This was a copy of the GAZ-63 truck, which was in itself merely a 4×4 version of the GAZ-51. Later, in 1971, the Sungri Motor Plants introduced a model with some significant modifications, the Sungri-61NA. It featured a redesigned cabin and engine hood, identifiable by the headlights being closer together and more integrated in the shape of the hood, as well as an increased payload.
The Sungri-61NA likely retains the same 6-cylinders engine as the GAZ-51. This is a GAZ-11 petrol engine, with a volume of 3,485 cm3, and a horsepower output of 70 hp at 2,800 rpm. It has a maximum torque of 201 Nm at 1,500 rpm. It ought to be noted that the engine is likely a North Korean copy, and quality issues are not entirely excluded. Some sources seem to claim the Sungri-61NA is a 4×2 truck, which seems odd, seeing as it is an evolution of the 4×4 Sungri-61. The payload is reported to be maintained at around 2.5 tonnes, despite opposing claims that the payload capacity was increased. Several different configurations have been seen. The truck exists both with rounded or square headlights, and can also feature either a doubled rear wheel, or a single wider rear wheel per side.
Overall, the Sungri trucks have been massively produced in North Korea, likely being the most produced trucks in the country.
The Type 63 107mm MRL
The Type 63 is a simple 107 mm rocket launcher that was designed and produced in the People’s Republic of China from the early 1960s. The standard launcher uses three rows of four launchers mounted on a split-trail carriage with two wheels fitted with pneumatics, which allows for considerable elevation of up to +57°.
The system has a limited maximum range of 8 km, and uses an 18.8 kg solid-fuel rocket with a fairly small warhead containing 1.3 kg of TNT. On the upside, it is an incredibly cheap platform that proved easy to produce in massive numbers, and could easily be operated in large numbers, be mounted on all kinds of platforms or even be carried around by infantry thanks to its lightweight.
With its cheap cost and non-negligible saturation potential, it is not surprising that the Type 63 proved to be a major success with the Korean People’s Army. Large-scale production of the type has been ongoing for decades, with the designation of “Type 75” sometimes being used for North Korean-produced 107 mm MRLs. The system has been widely used in various branches of the KPA. It has been in a frontline fire-support role since its introduction, but was also seen in coastal defense exercises, with its intended role presumably to target enemy forces as they land on a beach, and not naval assets.
The Truck-Borne MLRS
Seeing as the Sungri-61NA is the most commonly-produced North Korean light truck, and the 107 mm Type 63 an extremely common light multiple rocket launcher, it is not surprising that a combination of the two would eventually emerge. The 107 mm Type 63 is indeed widely mounted on North Korean vehicles. It has been spotted on non-turreted 323 armored personnel carriers – the “Sonyon” – as well as on other trucks.
The combination of the Sungri-61NA and Type 63 dates back to 1993 at the latest. This date also marked the beginning of one of North Korea’s periods of most hardship, often known as the “arduous march”, with the collapse of the Soviet Union causing a period of tremendous economic downturn and outright famine in the DPRK. The massive difficulties in acquiring materials and putting people to work led to a colossal reduction of productivity in this era, with only 150 trucks being produced by Sungri in its worst year, 1996. It appears many of these 150, and in general a significant proportion of Sungri-61NA trucks produced in this era, would be turned into MLRS vehicles. All Sungri-61NA used to create MLRS vehicles seen so far feature doubled rear wheels and rounded headlights.
The Sungri-61NA MLRS vehicles mount the 107 mm Type 63 to the rear of the vehicle. The open rear area of the vehicle features collapsable fenders. Thanks to the limited size of the Type 63 MLRS, it is actually far from completely occupying the rear bay of the Sungri-61NA. This free space was put to good use in the MLRS version. The space just behind the cabin was used to place ammunition boxes which presumably allow for the stowage of rockets for a second salvo after the first is fired.
The 107 mm Type 63 is able to fire an entire salvo in 7 to 9 seconds. Though its range, accuracy and explosive powers are fairly limited, it can reload quickly. The ability of a small truck mounting an MRL to stow one reload without relying on a secondary vehicle is quite impressive, and in theory, the ability of a Sungri-61NA battery to fire two salvoes of 107 mm rockets before promptly leaving to avoid counter-battery can be quite valuable militarily.
The photos we have of Sungri-61NA MRLS on parades appear to show a crew of six. Two crew members are in the cabin and four in the rear area, alongside the MRL. Considering the Type 63 is typically operated with a crew of five, though operation remains possible with a crew of four, it is likely the passenger of the cabin exits it to help with the firing and reloading. The vehicle’s crew can likely be divided into a driver, a commander, and four rocket launcher operators. Sometimes, only two crew members are present at the rear instead.
The KPA’s Most Common MLRS ?
While the Sungri-61NA MLRS was introduced at an unfortunate time for the KPA, the type appears to, over the years, have been produced in large numbers. Considering it combines likely the cheapest truck and MRL in North Korea, it is not surprising that the Sungri-61NA may very well have become the most commonly used MLRS in service in North Korea, though this cannot be confirmed for certain. It appears the system is typically operated at a regimental level.
In recent years, there have been some significant upgrades and evolution in North Korean MLRS. While more modern types, notably the 300 mm KN-09, have been introduced, large upgrades have also been applied to older 240 or 122 mm systems, such as, notably, GPS-guided rockets. However, because of the simplicity and limited evolutionary potential of the 107 mm rockets, it is likely that these upgrades appear to have largely not been implemented on the Sungri-61NA MLRS.
Nevertheless, one modification has been spotted in recent years, but does not concern the rocket-launcher itself. In recent parades, Sungri-61NA MLRS trucks were seen with two added Igla MANPADS (Man-portable air-defense system), one on each side of the rear area, located behind the ammunition boxes. Such an addition is not surprising, as fitting Iglas to all kinds of vehicles is a very common practice in the KPA. Though one may question the reasoning in fitting such missiles on an artillery vehicle, considering their potential is very limited against anything but helicopters and low-flying planes, an argument could be made that the limited range of 107 mm rockets would mean the vehicles would be quite close to the frontline and may end up confronted with an enemy helicopter. Still, mounting not one but two missiles appears a questionable decision. A more reasonable explanation for it is that mounting MANPADS on vehicles in parades does not appear to systematically equal these MANPADS being mounted in the field. There has indeed been a lot of footage of North Korean vehicles typically equipped with MANPADS in parades not featuring any during more operational exercises.
Conclusion – An Unsung Workhorse
When it comes to the Korean People’s Army, many of the more peculiar, quirky, and impressive designs created by North Korean engineers tend to attract major public attention. These may be the Songun-Ho or recent M2020, overshadowing the workhorses that are the older Chonma-Ho tanks and 323 APCs when it comes to armored fighting vehicles, and the 300 mm KN-09 or 240 mm systems such as the M1985 or M1991 eclipsing the very numerous 122 and 107 mm systems of the KPA. Though a variety of 107 mm-armed platforms exist, the Sungri-61NA is very likely the most commonly-used one. As such, it is a very important part of the lower echelons of North Korean rocket artillery. By itself, it may appear, and indeed is, an unimpressive system, merely being a 1960s MRL mounted on a truck-based on 1940s technology. But while it is certain Sungri-61NA MRLS would be destroyed in the dozens as soon as a conflict involving North and South Korea ignites, the large quantity of vehicles of the type in service is an important part of the overwhelming barrage of artillery that comprises perhaps the greatest threat posed by North Korea outside of nuclear warheads.
107 mm MRL on Sungri-61NA Specifications
Around 5.7 m
Around 2.3 m
Likely GAZ-11 6-cylinders petrol engine producing 70 hp at 2,800 rpm
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (2009-Present)
Main Battle Tank – Unknown Number Built
North Korea, or officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), stands as one, if not the most isolated major tank manufacturer in the world. Sometimes thought of as a relic of the Cold War desperately clinging onto existence, the country, sometimes known as the Hermit Kingdom, has long wanted to assert its independence from the Soviet Union and China when it comes to its military equipment, long before the Soviet Union even collapsed.
The country’s military industry started becoming increasingly independent in the late 1960s. Since then, it has put out vehicles differing more and more significantly from their Soviet or Chinese ancestors. Despite the harsh interruption of the 1990s crisis and famine, the 2000s have seen a significant renewal for North Korea’s tank industry, with a large variety of new vehicles introduced since the start of the 21st century.
One of the most significant and iconic of these developments is the Songun-Ho main battle tank, unveiled during the 65th anniversary of the Worker’s Party of Korea military parade. When unveiled, it was one of, if not the North Korean MBT that appeared to differ the most from the T-62 on which the Hermit Kingdom based its Chonma-Ho series of main battle tanks.
Roots of a new tank: The quest for a T-72 and upgrades to the Chonma
North Korea started local production of Soviet tanks, first in the form of the PT-76 and T-55, in the second half of the 1960s. These first production runs were not entirely accomplished by North Korea in isolation. A high degree of Soviet involvement was noted, but exactly how deep this was is unclear. It could range anywhere from the North Koreans just assembling vehicles from Soviet-made parts all the way to the Soviet Union delivering just the plans and critical elements. This first North Korean experience in armored vehicles manufacturing proved crucial for the nation, allowing it to be in possession of facilities able to manufacture armored vehicles, in the form of the Sinhung and Kusong tank plants. The Sinhung plant was mainly involved in manufacturing light and amphibious vehicles, whilst the Kusong plant is the producer of North Korea’s MBTs.
In the late 1970s, North Korea started the production of its Chonma-Ho series of main battle tanks, at first a mere slightly modified model of the Soviet T-62. These vehicles would become the mainstay of North Korea’s armored force, despite no large quantities of T-62s ever having been acquired from the Soviet Union. As early as the 1980s, the North Koreans started to upgrade the vehicles, giving them at first laser rangefinders (first observed in 1985) and later explosive reactive armor, welded turrets, and smoke grenades dischargers (M1992 & Chonma-92, first observed in 1992)
However, at the same time as upgrading the existing T-62s, it quickly became evident the technology of the T-62 would not be sufficient forever. The tank was actually superior to the M48 fielded by the South Korean Army (Republic of Korea Army, ROKA) for several years after its introduction in 1978. However, developments in the USA and South Korea, which would result in the M1 and K1, would quickly make the Chonma obsolete. The result was that North Korea was in dire need of more advanced components. With relations having considerably worsened with the Soviet Union ever since the Sino-Soviet split, acquiring highly modern and critical technology from them was not a possibility. North Korea therefore needed to find a way to acquire a tank more modern than its T-62-based Chonma-Ho if it wanted to not be completely superseded technologically.
A solution would appear in the form of the geographically distant but diplomatically close Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran and the DPRK had quite close diplomatic bonds, with the North Koreans having supplied about 150 Chonma-Ho tanks to Iran during the early phases of the Iran-Iraq War beginning in 1980. As a result, when the Iranians managed to capture some T-72s Ural tanks from the Iraqi Army, it is no surprise that a battle-damaged vehicle ended up being shipped to North Korea in the early-to-mid 1980s. The existence of this tank is confirmed by some partial footage from the era.
Whilst the T-72 Ural was far from the most advanced model of T-72, it at least provided North Korea with a 125 mm gun and, to a moderate extent, a more advanced engine, suspension, and armor arrangement to study. Despite rumors of North Korea acquiring T-72Ms from the Soviet Union or even T-90MS from Russia in the 1990s, this T-72 Ural acquired from Iran appears to actually be the only T-72 North Korea ever got its hands on.
Droplets of T-72 dropped onto T-62s: The later Chonma-Hos
The acquisition of a T-72, even if it was a fairly primitive model, was a major step in the evolution of North Korea’s main battle tanks. It significantly helped North Korean engineers in developing components more advanced than those found on the original T-62 to use in the Chonma-Ho series.
While North Korea appeared on its way to considerably upgrade the Chonma-Ho in the early 1990s, in the form of the M1992 & Chonma-92 notably, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its consequences for North Korea (with a famine) put a tragic halt to these developments. In 1994, as Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung passed away, a tragic famine that would last until 1998 touched North Korea, resulting in 500,000 to 600,000 excess deaths and stopping new military developments pretty much completely. Only a fairly modest new model of the Chonma made its appearance in the later half of the decade and was known as the Chonma-98. In comparison to the Chonma-92, the Chonma-98 featured little more than a lower ERA coverage and slight modifications to the turret and side-skirts.
The first signs of influence taken from the T-72 and other modern Soviet MBTs would appear in the Chonma-214, first seen in 2001. This tank replaced the ERA with applique armor on the turret and additional bolted-on armor on the upper front plate and steel plates on the hull sides. It also included front rubber flaps covering the lower front plate, in a fashion similar to the much more advanced T-80U. A new front drive wheel inspired by the T-72’s design was also featured. Finally, while the exact nature of these additions is pretty much impossible to assess, seeing as it would require much more direct access to the North Korean vehicles, the Chonma-214 likely features a more advanced fire control system and its predecessors – the influence of the T-72 likely being significant in its design.
The T-72-influenced features of the Chonma-214 would be conserved and expanded upon by two subsequent models of the Chonma; the Chonma-215, of which production started in 2003, and the Chonma-216, of which the production started in 2004. The Chonma-215’s most significant modification was switching the original chassis from five to six road wheels, as on the T-72. The length of the tank had, however, not been significantly lengthened in adding this new wheel. Whilst the wheels retained a ‘starfish’ style similar to the T-62 and earlier Soviet tanks, they had been reduced in size by about 10%, making them somewhat more reminiscent of T-72 wheels in comparison to the original configuration. The vehicle also featured considerable additional applique armor and elements suggest its fire control system was considerably improved – a wind sensor notably appearing to have been added.
The Chonma-215 would be fairly elusive and short-lived though, being very quickly followed up by the Chonma-216. For this vehicle, the North Korean engineers took the six-road wheel base of the 215 and used it to extensively modify the chassis, which was somewhat lengthened; the engine compartment, notably, was considerably redesigned and appeared much more similar to the T-72’s, suggesting a similar engine may have been adopted for the vehicle. The suspension was also redesigned to resemble the one featured on the more modern Soviet tank; the arrangement of the smoke grenade dischargers was altered to resemble the one of more modern Soviet tanks more closely. Lastly, it has occasionally been theorized the vehicle may feature a 125 mm-gun based on the T-72’s 2A46, but it appears more likely the Chonma-216 retained the original 115 mm U-5TS. It would, however, be the last North Korean main battle tank to retain this armament.
On the path of Songun…-Ho
The various evolutions of the Chonma-Ho in the 2000s show increasing influence from Soviet designs of the late Cold War on North Korean tank designs. This is likely out of an effort to try and at least somewhat compensate for the technological advantage South Korea had acquired in the late 1980s and 1990s thanks to its K1 main battle tank and its subsequent models. Although it appears beyond doubt that vehicles such as the Chonma-214 or Chonma-216 improved the combat values of the Chonma-Ho and were quite significantly superior to the original T-62, they still had no chance of realistically competing with South Korea’s K1. In order to at least try and compensate for the technological gap, a considerable jump would have to be performed from the base of the T-62. This jump would be unveiled to the eyes of the world in 2010, during the 65th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea military parade, in the form of the new Songun-Ho or Songun-915 main battle tank, a type of tank which appears to have entered production in 2009.
As always with North Korean vehicles, the development of the Songun-Ho is more than nebulous and its history is best derived from an analysis of the observable elements of the tank, and attempts to try and find or at least theorize on their origin. The tank was likely designed after the Chonma-216, and serves as a logical conclusion to North Korea’s experience taking inspiration from the T-72 and other late Soviet tank designs: designing a new, or at least mostly new tank on the basis of experience gained by studying those designs.
The New Tank’s Hull
The new Songun-Ho features a vastly modified hull in comparison to the previous Chonma-216. Though it is still based on the Chonma, to an extent, it incorporates more changes than any individual model of the previous series ever has.
The change that is perhaps the most indicative of the considerable structural evolutions the Songun-Ho has undertaken is the driver’s position. On all models of the Chonma-Ho, the driver sat to the front left of the hull, as on the T-62. The Songun-Ho instead uses a central driver’s position, a layout similar to the one of the T-72.
The hull of the Songun-Ho appears to have been widened in comparison to its predecessors, sitting at about 3.50 m in width, in comparison to 3.30 m on the T-62 and likely all Chonma-Ho models. The vehicle, however, appears to retain the same 58 cm-wide OMSh metallic hinge track as found on Chonma-Ho and T-62s. Although those tracks are fairly outdated and somewhat primitive by modern standards, they allow for commonality with older models and allow North Korea’s industry not to have to do a fairly hard and expensive switch to a new set of components. Those tracks can also be fitted with rubber pads in order not to cause damage in urban areas during parades.
In terms of length, the distance between the first and last axles of the road wheels present on the Songun-Ho appears to be of about 4.06 m, a value similar to the T-62, and those road wheels are separated by 30 track links, as on the old Soviet tank. This makes it obvious that the size of the Songun-Ho’s wheels has been reduced, seeing as it maintains the 6 road wheels configuration of the Chonma-216. The vehicle still uses ‘starfish’-type road wheels, as on previous tanks and, just as with track links, this part commonality likely is a significant factor in the decision to maintain old components. The tank uses torsion bar suspension, and photos of the vehicle without side skirts during military exercises have revealed it has 3 return rollers. The vehicle features thick rubber side skirts covering the upper suspension, like previous North Korean tanks; its fenders slope downward, as on the T-62, but feature a rubber covering, as on the T-72.
The overall length of the Songun-Ho’s hull is about 6.75 m, with the engine compartment overhanging further than the rear idler wheel by several decimetres. This is only slightly longer than on the old T-62, which was about 6.63 m long. Nonetheless, the engine compartment of the Songun-Ho appears quite different from previous vehicles. Interestingly, it includes grills not only on top of the engine, but also on the rear of the right mudguard. North Korean sources claim the Songun-Ho uses a 1,200 hp engine that propels it at 70 km/h. This claim of the vehicle featuring such a powerful engine is likely an overestimation done for propaganda purposes, but the Songun-Ho does quite likely feature an engine developed from the T-72’s, likely quite more powerful than those used on previous Chonma-Hos. Considering the vehicle has a fairly moderate estimated weight of about 44 tonnes, it may still have a very decent mobility.
The Songun-Ho’s upper front plate has always been seen under a cover of explosive reactive armor plates. Two headlamps are present on the front-sides of this ERA covering. The lower front plate is hidden by a thick rubber sheet, as on the T-80U and later models of the Chonma-Ho. Behind the ERA covering, the Songun-Ho is thought to have some form of basic composite armor, though likely simplistic and dated in its composition. Again, the assumption would be that this composite would be derived from the T-72 Ural.
An Odd Return to Cast Turrets
Though it has some new features, the hull of the Songun-Ho differs much less significantly from previous North Korean tanks when it is compared with the tank’s very peculiar turret.
While new North Korean tanks had been using welded turrets ever since the early 1990s, the Songun-Ho saw a return to a cast turret. It is a design somewhat similar to the T-62 in general appearance, but much taller and more bulbous. A number of reasons can be found to justify this increase in size.
Firstly, the Songun-Ho is the first North Korean tank that is certified to feature a 125 mm gun. The most likely inspiration for this gun came from the 2A26M2 or 2A46 present in the T-72 Ural, however, the external appearance of the gun shows it is not an identical copy. The gun is very likely compatible with most, though not all Soviet and Chinese ammunition, and North Korea very likely produces local shells as well, although how advanced they are is a question to which an answer is unlikely to be forthcoming. It is, however, fairly certain that the North Korean 125 mm gun is not able to fire gun-launched anti-tank missiles. The larger size of this gun is a reason to accomodate a larger turret and the higher roof of the Songun-Ho’s turret may be to allow for more depression as well. Unlike the vast majority of Soviet and Chinese 125 mm-armed tanks, the Songun-Ho has not opted for an autoloader, which may have been too complex to manufacture and fit into a hull still based on the Chonma-Ho. Instead, the tank has a human loader, meaning the turret houses three men, an oddity in modern designs that take their roots in Soviet principles. With the gun included, the vehicle appears to be around 10.40 m long.
The Songun-Ho’s turret features a laser rangefinder (LRF) on top of the gun. It is smaller and likely more modern than previous North Korean LRFs, but remains external, an archaic feature in modern tank design. An infrared spotlight is mounted on the right of the gun, linked to it via braces in order to accomodate elevation. This is a very common feature in North Korean tanks. The loader sits to the right, the gunner to the front left, and the commander to the rear left.
The vehicle has another commonly-found feature in the form of the 14.5 mm KPV machine gun mounted on top of the turret. Its presence on the right side suggests it is operated by the loader. This machine gun very likely is not remotely operated, meaning the loader has to open the hatch and make himself vulnerable to small arms fire in order to operate it. Another secondary weapon that has been present since the first parade of the Songun-Ho is an Igla man-portable anti-aircraft missile, installed to the left of the turret and likely operated by the commander; this is once again a common feature in North Korean vehicles. However, footage of the Songun-Ho during exercises seems to suggest this missile is rarely if ever used in the field. A coaxial 7.62 m machine-gun of unknown model (perhaps a PKT) is very likely present as well.
Though cast, the Songun-Ho’s turret features a fairly large rectangular turret basket, with two storage rails encompassing its surface. The nature of this basket is not exactly known – it may serve to house ammunition or provide more internal space. The most likely theory is that it actually contains storage boxes that can be accessed from outside the vehicle. The tank’s smoke dischargers are installed on the turret sides, in front of the basket, with a bank of four dischargers on each side. A cross-wind sensor is also installed seemingly on top of the turret basket.
A drawback of cast turrets is that they typically are a lot harder to fit with composite armor. This does not deter North Korean sources from claiming the Songun-Ho’s turret offers “900 mm of protection”, though they do not specify whether this is against APFSDS of HEAT projectiles. In any case, it is very unlikely the turret actually provides this amount of protection. While it is reasonable to expect the Songun-Ho to have some form of composite armor array in the turret, the combination of cast turret and, in general, likely fairly primitive composite armor technology in use by North Korea does not bode well for the turret’s capacity to withstand modern anti-tank ammunition.
Modifications to the Songun-Ho
After it was first unveiled in 2010, the Songun-Ho has been shown in a couple of other configurations which differ from the one first seen in 2010 by the presence of turret ERA as well as secondary armaments.
The first modified version, which may have been seen as early as 2010, differed from the original by the presence of ERA blocks on the turret. These ERA blocks are placed on the turret front and front-top, providing additional protection on the frontal arc of the turret. Curiously, the blocks present on both sides of the mantlet appear to be double-stacked. The ability for ERA to work while double-stacked is one which is far from present in all ERA blocks, typically present only in some more modern blocks, and it is quite surprising North Korea has already developed such a type of ERA blocks (though some sometimes claim the only reason while North Korea uses double-stack ERA is for deception purposes). Vehicles using this double-stack ERA have been seen in both the single-color camouflage used in the 2010 parade as well as a more colorful yellow and green camouflage seen in later parades, particularly in 2017. North Korean sources claim their turret ERA provides an additional protection that would be valued at 500 mm, in addition to the 900 mm that would already be provided to the turret, giving it a protection value of around 1,400 mm. Once again, this is very likely an exaggeration, and the type of ammunition that would be used is not even mentioned.
Another early configuration of the Songun-Ho, seen in a military exhibition, featured the above mentioned ERA package, as well as two Konkurs Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM) present on the right front of the turret. The use of external ATGMs on the Songun-Ho, which re-occurred at a later date, is thought of as a proof the North Korean 125 mm is not able to fire any gun-launched missile, and likely indicate the penetration capacities of the gun are limited to an extent, seeing the need for missiles that likely improve the penetration of enemy armor quite significantly. The same configuration also sports two other missiles, which appear to be an unidentified type of man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS).
Another form of early configuration the Songun-Ho has been shown in is an amphibious crossing configuration, in which the vehicle is fitted with a snorkel for river crossing operations; the turret-mounted machine-gun is also covered by a protective cover in this form.
The most visually impressive configuration that the Songun-Ho has been shown in, and which brings far more additional armaments than the previous, is the new weapons package that has been seen on some tanks in 2018.
This was first seen during the parade for the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the DPRK. On the right of the turret, the 14.5 mm KPV machine-gun has been replaced by a dual 30 mm automatic grenade-launcher, a weapon of North Korean design. Instead of a single Igla missile, two were mounted on a tall, mast-like superstructure at the center rear of the turret. Lastly, a new anti-tank missile launcher can be seen on the right hand side. Cleaner than previous launchers in designs, it appears the missiles it launches are North Korea’s Bulsae 3. Claimed to be similar to the powerful Russian 9M133 Kornet in capacities, some other sources indicate than the Bulsae 3 likely is an improved model of the old Fagot ATGM, which North Korea has copied as the Bulsae-2.
The main modification of the Bulsae-3 would be the replacement of wire guidance by laser guidance, based on technology indeed taken from Kornet missiles that North Korea would have received not from Russia but from Syria, with which the Hermit Kingdom maintains some significant military ties. However, recent evidence has mostly ruled out the roots between the Bulsae-3 and the Fagot, and the missile indeed appears some form of local Kornet copy. Their addition to this armament package likely indicates they are thought of as superior to the Konkurs missiles in any case.
The operation of the weapons present in this package is somewhat questionable. The weapons do not appear to be remotely operated, which means their operation in active combat would likely be a considerable risk for the crew. It has been suggested the package may be present purely for show – and would not actually be used in exercises or active operations. It is indeed not that uncommon to see North Korean tanks in exercise footage field none of the missile armament they may have been seen with in parades, although this could be for the far simpler reason of avoiding damage to things not essential during training.
At the same time, it appears that this armament package was only fitted to newly produced vehicles, showing that Songun-Ho production has continued through the 2010s. It is known the Kusong tank factory has known some considerable slow-downs in Chonma-216 and Songun-Ho production at times though, due to the factory also being involved in production of hulls for ballistic missile launchers or self-propelled artillery. How many Songun-Ho have been manufactured is therefore very much unknown, but likely either in the high tens or low hundreds. The vehicles are very likely operated by some of the best equipped and trained North Korean armor regiments operating near the DMZ, the so-called “demilitarized zone”. This is, in practice, the very-much militarized border between the two Koreas, where the most well-trained and equipped troops of both armies tend to be located.
Meaning of the Name
The “Songun” name of the tank is a reference to the policy of Songun, which roughly translates to “military first”. Though North Korea has been a particularly militarized state ever since the 1960s, this policy has been an official component of the ruling Juche ideology only since the 1990s. It has become a major aspect of it, as North Korea continues to upscale and invest as much as it can into its military – seemingly its only way to obtain some find of leverage and assurance of its survival. The name of what was, in 2010, North Korea’s newest tank and first member of a line of new models ever since the Chonma-Ho introduced in 1978, is therefore “Songun”. As for the -Ho suffix, it is the standard North Korean designation for a tank model.
Conclusion – The future of the Songun-Ho
Overall, the Songun-Ho is a particularly interesting vehicle. A significant jump forward from the previous Chonma-216, it is still likely highly inferior to the newest South Korean tanks, the K1A1, K1A2, and K2 Black Panther. Still, the improvements it brings to North Korean armor are not to be ignored and it should be remembered that the ROKA still operates a considerable number of M48A3K and M48A5K/K1/K2. Against these tanks, the Songun-Ho likely has both a firepower and protection advantage. Against perhaps even the first K1 model, which notably retained a 105 mm gun, the Songun-Ho may very well have a chance, although its fire control system likely is not as advanced. While the tank is certainly not as advanced as contemporary MBTs, the step forward formed by the Songun-Ho should not be underestimated. After all, just 10 years prior to the type being introduced, North Korea fielded nothing better than the Chonma-92 or 98, which were little more than T-62s with laser rangefinders, smoke dischargers, and ERA. As such, the Songun-Ho marks a substantial increase in military capability for North Korea.
Recent developments have shown that North Korea likely is very much aware of the Songun-Ho’s inferiority. On October 10th 2020, a new model of main battle tank appeared during the 75th Workers’ Party of Korea anniversary parade. While how many of this tank’s features are real and how many are fake is very much still in debate, the vehicle appears to take the base of the Songun-Ho tank and to considerably expand on it – a manifestation of North Korea’s wishes to try and close the technological gap in particular with South Korean and American tanks. While this new type now enters service, it is very likely the Songun-Ho may still be in production for a while, remaining one of the most modern tanks in the Korean People’s Army’s arsenal.
Songun-Ho specifications (estimations)
~6.75 m (hull only) or 10.40m (hull and gun)/3.50 m/unknown (estimations)
Total Weight, Battle Ready
1,200 hp engine (North Korean claim); likely a derivative of the T-72’s V-12 diesel engine
Maximum speed (road)
70 km/h (claimed)
4 (driver, commander, gunner, loader)
Local 125 mm gun derived from the 2A46M, with laser rangefinder, IR searchlight, crosswind sensor
Likely a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun (all configurations), 14.5 mm KPV & Igla missile (original configuration), AT-5 Sprandel/Konkurs & unknown MANPADS (first known other configuration), Dual 30 mm AGS, Dual Igla missiles, dual Bulsae-3 launcher (2018 configuration), a single 14.5 mm KPV machine gun (exercise configuration)
Composite array & ERA claimed to be equivalent to 1,400 mm (turret); hull armor unknown
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Late 1980s-Unknown)
Armored Personnel Carrier & Weapons Platform – Unknown Number Built
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (~1980s-Present)
Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun – Unknown Number 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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (1980s-Present)
Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun – Unknown Number Built
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Maximum speed (road)
~ 50 km/h
Likely 6 (driver, commander, gunner, two loaders, sight adjustor)
Locally-manufactured version of the 57mm S-68A
Rate of fire
240 rounds per minute maximum
Very light (likely no more than the ZSU-23-4, aka 15mm maximum)
Democratic People’s Republic of 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
On 25th April 2022, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung organized a parade for the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army. Other have pointed out that it was also to celebrate the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, founder of the nation. At the parade, the 8 pre series M2020 appeared for the fourth official time.
Externally they were unmodified. It is possible that some of the expected development and modifications have been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and its financial impact, in spite of the regime’s best efforts to prevent the virus entering the country and stopping its spread. Similarly, development and modifications may have been affected by the main focus missile tests over the last two years.
In the period of January to April 2022 alone, North Korea has launch tested 20 missiles.
However, they had a new three tone drown, dark green, and light green spots camouflage, more suitable for the North Korean terrain than the original yellow camouflage. Hwasŏng-17 missiles, already seen in the 2020 parade and which recently completed a successful launch test on 24th March 2022, were also at the parade.
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.
Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans – The Armed Forces of North Korea: On the Path of Songun