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Cold War North Korean Armor Modern North Korean Armor

M1989/M1992 Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun

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

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

Previous North Korean self-propelled anti-aircraft guns

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

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

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

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

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

Guns from the navy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naval guns onto a ground vehicle’s turret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hull – Re-using the GMZ-575 copy

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

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

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

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

The first truly modern SPAAG in the KPA’s hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M1989/M1992 specifications

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

Sources

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

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