Modern North Korean Armor
Roughly 2,500 APCs and 4,000 MBTs as of the late 2010s
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), more often simply known as North Korea, was established following the conclusion of the Second World War in East Asia. The Korean peninsula, previously a part of Japan’s colonial empire, was divided in two, between a Soviet zone in the north and an American one in the south. This quickly led to the formation of two different regimes, which, with support from their respective allies, would clash during the eventually inconclusive Korean War of 1950-1953.
The Korean peninsula has been divided ever since an uneasy truce in July 1953, with the North continuing on the Marxist-Leninist path on which it was put by its Soviet and Chinese allies, and the South adopting a more liberal Western-style economy. Despite the North having its roots in that path of Marxist-Leninism, it has progressively developed its own, independent aspects – most notably, the concept of ‘Juche’. This political philosophy of autarky concentrates on the need for North Korea to be able to remain self-sufficient and independent. This ideology likely had some influence on North Korea’s armored forces and its development.
North Korean Cold War Tank Developments
During the late 1960s, while North Korea attempted to strike a balance between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union (bitter rivals at this time), North Korea made efforts to kickstart a local industry. This first started with the local assembly of Soviet vehicles, such as the T-55 and PT-76. As early as the 1970s, North Korea would diversify, starting production of vehicles based on Chinese or Soviet designs, but incorporating some significant modifications. The most notable examples of such modifications to existing Soviet or Chinese AFVs were the 323 armored personnel carrier, the M1981 light tank, and, perhaps even more so, the Chonma-Ho series of main battle tanks, directly based on the Soviet T-62. At the same time, North Korea also began to manufacture some of its own self-propelled artillery pieces. This started by mating the hulls of Soviet ATS-59 tractors with artillery pieces, with the same hull later being used to create a slightly more sophisticated design in the form of the Tokchon. Tokchons would be armed with a variety of guns; 100 mm ones to serve as tank destroyers, and 122, 130 and 152 mm guns for self-propelled artillery pieces.
By the early 1990s, a wide variety of North Korean designs now existed.
In the role of armored personnel carrier, the 323, based on the Chinese Type 63 but improved by adding a dual 14.5 mm turret and an additional roadwheel, formed (and still forms) the mainstay armored personnel carrier of the KPA. The large production run it undertook also made its hull the perfect base to create a wide variety of armored fighting vehicles. On the basis of the 323, North Korea is known to have manufactured pure, un-turreted armored personnel carriers. Many of these were then modified with rear-mounted multiple rocket launchers, either Chinese 107 mm or North Korea’s own 122 mm designs, while retaining their personnel-carrying capacity, making them curious APCs able to fire a single volley of rockets. These are generally called ‘Sonyons’. The 323 was also the base for open-topped tank destroyers equipped with 100 and 103 mm guns, very much old-fashioned in their general designs. In terms of artillery, two self-propelled guns, the M1977 and its refinement, the M1985, mount a 122 mm D-30 on the hull of the 323. Mortar carriers also existed; an unseen 82 mm mortar carrier designated ‘M1985’, and a 120 mm turreted mortar carrier with a rear-mounted turret somewhat reminiscent of the Soviet 2S9 Nona, designated M1992.
In the Self-Propelled anti-aircraft role (SPAAG), North Korea had progressed quite immensely. From merely trucks fitted with 14.5 mm machine guns in the early Cold War, North Korea had first developed a model of the Tokchon which featured dual rear-mounted 37 mm anti-aircraft guns and is known as the M1978. In the 1980s, while some 323-based models fitted with quad 14.5 mm machine guns entered service (the M1983 and M1984), the most significant vehicles were the M1985 (a vehicle based on the hull of the Shilka, but which mounted dual 57 mm guns, similar to the ZSU-57-2) and the M1989. The latter, while seemingly similar to a Shilka at first glance, actually used the Soviet AK-230 dual 30 mm gun system, originally a CIWIS found on Soviet ships, and which may give it an edge in firing range in comparison to the Shilka.
In terms of artillery, North Korea had moved to develop a turreted and enclosed model of the Tokchon, mounting a 152 mm-gun in a rear-mounted turret and generally designated as M1985 or M1991. A more refined turreted artillery design was the Chuch’e’po, identified by their use of an enclosed turret and the presence of six road wheels, and mounting 122 mm guns based on the Soviet D-74. These co-existed with the larger M1978 and M1989 Koksans, using a likely indigenous 170 mm high-velocity gun on a hull based on the T-54/T-55/Type 59.
Other vehicles include the M1992 APC, a curious amphibious armored car which likely has some troop-carrying capacity, and could be fitted with a variety of armament, such as 9K11 ATGMs, AGS-17 grenade launchers, or even Chinese 107 mm Type 63 multiple rocket launchers. While an interesting platform, the M1992 has never been seen since 1992, suggesting it may not be very common or has not been pursued far by North Korea’s defence industry.
When it comes to tanks, by the early 1990s, the newest models of North Korea’s Chonma-ho were the very similar “M1992” and “Chonma-92”. These notably featured a considerable evolution in comparison to the previous Chonmas, having switched from a cast to a welded turret. They retained the Laser Range Finder (LRF) mounted on top of the main gun, but now featured some Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) coverage (the main known difference between the M1992 and Chonma-92 being the ERA coverage being slightly different). Though these were non-negligible improvements over the original Chonma-Ho or T-62, at the end of the day, these were just improved models of these vehicles. Across the border, South Korea was now beginning to field the much more advanced K1.
1990s: It all comes tumbling down
Though the 1980s saw considerable developments and a diversification of the North Korean armored vehicle fleet, this change would be brutally stopped in the 1990s, an extremely hard decade for North Korea.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a major hit to North Korea. Despite wanting to assert its independence from the communist giant to its north, North Korea was still economically dependent on its large neighbor, particularly when it came to food imports. North Korea had indeed started to depend on the Soviet Union again during the 1980s, as relations between the two mended. In this context, the collapse of the Soviet Union marked a tremendous hit to the North Korean economy and food supply. This was followed by the death of North Korea’s first ruler, Kim Il-Sung, on July 8, 1994. The same year, as his son Kim Jong-Il took over, North Korea entered a devastating famine, with the most reliable modern estimates putting it around 500,000 to 600,000 excess deaths over the four years of what would be called the Arduous March.
This era of change and famine did not completely stop the developments of North Korea’s armament industry, but were still a major burden that hindered the various programs. After the Chonma-92, the next known update to the Chonma did not appear until 2000, as North Korea finally seemed to recover from the joint loss of the support of the Soviet Union and the troubles caused by the famine. It also is around this time, in the late 1990s, that a new aspect of North Korea’s Juche ideology rose to prominence. This was Songun, which can be best described as the primacy of the military above all else, being put at the highest priority of the North Korean state and its finances, even more so than before. This Songun policy made the military the core of the North Korean state, around which the economy and foreign policy were to be based, for example. At the same time, Songun introduced an almost veneration of the military. Songun was introduced as a policy by Kim Jong-Il from 1995 onward, following the death of his father Kim Il-Sung. It has remained a core aspect of the North Korean ideology ever since, particularly in the context of nuclear tensions which marked Korea in the 2000s and 2010s.
In general, however, very few new vehicle types appear to have been introduced in this era.
2000s: An industry back on its tracks
Only with the start of the 21st century were new, major upgrades of the Chonma or new vehicle types spotted in North Korea. After the devastating 1990s, the recovering North Korea found the need for indigenous armored vehicles perhaps even more crucial than before. With the Soviet Union gone and the Republic of Korea’s Army (ROKA) having transformed during the late 1980s and 1990s from a fairly backwater army to one that now fielded a large number of vastly superior K1 and K1A1 MBTs, the Korean People’s Army found itself with perhaps the most numerous, but also terribly isolated and horrendously outdated armored fleet.
The first model of the Chonma seen in this new century would be the Chonma-214, differing from the previous 98 by the use of applique armor and rubber flaps, as well as new road wheels inspired by the T-72’s. The following model, the Chonma-215, featured a major evolution with the lengthening of the hull to feature an additional roadwheel, resulting from the installation of a more powerful and modern engine as well as the addition of thicker armor. Though acquiring accurate details on the fire control of North Korean vehicles is effectively impossible, the vehicles also appeared to mount a largely updated Fire Control System (FCS) in comparison to previous models. This Chonma-215 was introduced in 2003, but was quickly followed by the 216 in 2004, which featured a redesigned engine deck and a longer chassis that retained the six road wheels. The turret remained identical to the 215, but it has been suggested the 216 may have brought a major update in the form of mounting a 125 mm gun, instead of the original 115 mm inherited from the T-62. This, however, is only a theory, and the Chonma-216 may well retain a 115 mm gun, although an upgrade is certainly plausible and possible.
In the same period, North Korea also acquired foreign armored fighting vehicles, something fairly rare in recent times. A limited number of Russian BTR-80As, fitted with the 30 mm BPPU turret, were acquired from Russia after an agreement signed in 2001. The number of vehicles acquired is known to be limited (32 is often mentioned). As is often the case with North Korea, it is thought that the purchase is more to be used to take inspiration and imitate than to use in the traditional sense. That being said, the BTR-80As have still been seen fairly often in North Korean parades ever since.
Most significantly though, the development of armored vehicles of the 2000s was vastly overshadowed by the rise of North Korea’s nuclear capacities. The DPRK’s relationships with nuclear energy go back all the way to the late 1950s, with North Korea being particularly insistent on obtaining a nuclear reactor for the Soviet Union – to the point it became a point of discord between the two. North Korea finally obtained a research reactor in 1959. A more powerful reactor that could create plutonium to use in nuclear weapons would only be constructed, with Soviet assistance, in the 1980s, and brought onto operations in 1986. The Soviet Union had pushed North Korea to enter the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) before the new reactor went online, but with the collapse of North Korea’s Soviet benefactor, reports very quickly started appearing at the UN on actual North Korean nuclear facilities being way larger than claimed, with North Korea announcing it would leave the NPT in 1993. This withdrawal ended up being suspended, but North Korea effectively left in 2003.
After North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT, only three years – and ineffective, six-way DPRK-South Korea-USA-Japan-China-Russia talks – would pass before the first North Korean nuclear device would be detonated on October 9th, 2006. For the now isolated North Korean state, nuclear weapons formed a perfect deterrence tool to protect the regime from foreign threats. Under President George W. Bush, the USA had been openly offensive and aggressive against what was now called the “Axis of Evil”, a so-called alliance of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea coined at the 2002 State of the Union Address. With Iraq flat-out invaded the next year, its large army incapable of properly resisting overwhelming coalition air superiority and modern tanks, it was only natural for the DPRK’s leadership to fear their country being victim to a similar fate.
Though the North Korean willingness to try and obtain nuclear warheads likely came from way further back than the early 2000s – likely as early as the construction of a more powerful reactor in 1986 – this show of US hostility and force against regimes perceived as hostile only demonstrated how much North Korea was under threat and needed a proper tool of deterrence not to see its lands invaded by the USA and their South Korean allies – something nuclear warheads could do better than anything else.
2010: A tank industry resurgent
By about 2010, North Korea’s tank industry had solidly recovered from the disaster that was the 1990s. It had also been bolstered by a new component of the Juche ideology, first theorized in the late 1990s and being a major influence on North Korea’s policies since then: Songun. Translated as ‘military first’, this ideological principle states that, in order to ensure North Korea’s protection or even potential capacity to retake the South, it should focus its economic development on the overhaul, expansion, and equipment of its military force. The implications of this new policy became quite clear when, in 2010, the parade for the 65th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, a number of new vehicles, which differed very significantly from previous models, were shown to the world for the first time.
The least impressive, though by no means insignificant, vehicles first seen in this parade were the M2009 and M2010 armored personnel carriers. The M2009 is an APC based on the hull of the old M1981 amphibious tank, featuring two 14.5 mm KPVs in a fully rotatable turret, larger than on the old 323. The two M2010s are wheeled vehicles based on the Soviet BTR-80 and feature a turret similar, though not identical, to the M2009. One is a six-wheeled vehicle and the other is eight-wheeled. The (red) star of the parade though, was without much of a doubt a new model of main battle tank; the M2010 Songun-Ho or Songun-915.
This new tank was a considerable departure from the previous Chonmas, featuring a much larger turret and one which was notable for having been cast instead of welded. The reason for this larger turret is quite clear. The vehicle features a 125 mm gun based on that from the T-72, with, uncommonly for a tank rooted in Eastern Block design principles, a three-man turret crew that includes a loader, as there is no autoloader in the vehicle. The hull was also considerably redesigned, with a much larger engine deck and a central driver’s position making it much more reminiscent of the T-72 than the T-62. In the following years, the Songun-Ho would often be seen in parades and exhibitions with a variety of other features such as Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA), but also additional weapons including Bulsae-3 anti-tank missiles, Igla MANPADS, and 30 mm automatic grenades launchers. By this time, similar additional armament was becoming commonplace on other vehicles as well and the Chonma-216 received all three in some packages, while MANPADS are now present on almost all North Korean armored vehicles, including open-topped self-propelled artillery pieces in some parades. The Songun-Ho is estimated to weigh 44 tonnes – 5 more than the Chonma-216. Although likely incapable of competing on equal terms with modern South Korean main battles tanks such as the K1A1 and K1A2, let alone the K2, it remains a considerable step-up from an army that had nothing more advanced than a local T-62 with applique armor and a laser-rangefinder by the start of the 2000s.
Late-2010s to Today: Kim Jong-Un’s KPA
The death of Kim Jong-Il and the rise of his son Kim-Jong Un on the non-established throne of what is now known as the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ in December of 2011 was, for some time, hoped to mark a halt in North Korea’s massive armament programs. However, the last years of the 2010s, and even more so 2020 and so far 2021, have proven those hopes wrong, with new, seemingly more and more advanced armored fighting vehicles being introduced.
In 2018, notably, a modern-looking self-propelled artillery piece was unveiled in the form of what is now known as the M2018. This modern self-propelled gun would not be put to shame side-by-side with its counterpart south of the border, the South Korean K9 Thunder. This new system notably appears to feature a gun that is not the 152 mm gun common in DPRK service, but a gun 155 mm in caliber. Internal details of the vehicle are so far unknown, making any assessment over its actual capability extremely challenging, but it is fair to say that it appears to be substantially more advanced than anything North Korea has previously fielded in terms of self-propelled guns.
Even more significantly, in 2020, the parade for the 70th anniversary of the Korean Workers Party featured new types of vehicles in what appears to be a vehicle inspired by the USA’s M1128 MGS wheeled 105 mm assault gun. However, instead of a 105 mm gun, the North Korean vehicle appears to mount a 122 mm gun. Apart from this vehicle, a new main battle tank was introduced as well, featuring seven road wheels and an unusual look compared to other North Korean tanks. By some commentators, this was interpreted as not much more than a fake façade for the benefit of the camera as a propaganda piece. Nonetheless, the appearance was still a departure from previous vehicles and was clearly taking some inspiration both from modern Western and Russian MBTs, the likes of the M1A2 Abrams or T-14 Armata. Deciphering what is real and what is not in this vehicle is currently not possible due to the lack of data, but the reappearance of the MBT in a parade in January of 2021 and significant modifications that have been carried onto the chassis suggest that a new MBT is very likely being introduced.
Despite some diplomatic agreements between North Korea and South Korea in recent years – with Kim Jong-Un meeting the American and South Korean Presidents in 2018 and agreeing to seek a peace treaty for the peninsula – the military developments of what is perhaps the world’s most isolated and elusive major tank industry do not appear to have stopped. The superiority of South Korean or American designs over what North Korea has unveiled, even recently, appears obvious. One may at least recognize that in comparison to 20-years ago, when North Korea fielded nothing more advanced than a modified T-62, the transformation has been nothing less than radical.
The DPRK’s InterContinental Ballistic Missile program
A major aspect of North Korean military developments, which exists almost entirely parallel from its armored vehicles design services, is the missile development branch. It does have interactions with ground vehicles design though, mostly in the form of the missile-launching vehicles North Korea uses – some of which are based on tracked, tank-based chassis.
The missile program of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was born in 1976 at the behest of Kim Il-sung, years before the nuclear weapons program was likely even started.
Between 1976 and 1981, the program was in an experimental phase. North Korean engineers started from the Soviet R-17 Elbrus missiles (NATO code SS-1 Scud-B) and launchpads produced in Egypt.
The first North Korean missiles were produced in 1981-1984 and were essentially a copy of the Soviet Scud-B. The first test of one of these Korean Scud-B missiles was performed in 1984. Between 1984 and 1988, further tests were performed, with the Scud-B and a variant with increased range entering service with the KPA in 1988, first with the Korean People’s Army Air and Anti-Air Force (KPAAF) and since 1999 within the new Korean People’s Army Strategic Rocket Force (KPASRF).
Under the command of Kim Il-sung, up to 1994, there were 15 missile tests, the most important of which was in 1990, when the Hwasong-7 missile, also known as Nodong-1, was tested for the first time. The Hwasong-7 was essentially an enlarged version of the Soviet Scud, with an estimated range between 1,200 and 1,500 km. In 1993, a Nodong-1 was launched into the Sea of Japan to impress the Iranian Armored Corps, which was so impressed that in January of the following year it signed a contract worth 2.7 billion US dollars for the purchase of 300 Korean missiles.
Under Kim Jong-il there were 16 nuclear tests between 1994 and 2011 and, despite the little activity, he gave a great emphasis and priority to the missile plan.
Under the command of Kim Jong-il, there were also the first international incidents, with some missiles not only entering Japanese airspace but crossing it and landing in the Pacific Ocean.
Jong-il’s successor, Kim Jong-Un, has exponentially increased the number of ballistic tests reaching 119 between April 2012 and December 2019. This is 80% of all North Korean missile tests.
With the current heir of the Kim dynasty, the fruits of years of ICBM (InterContinental Ballistic Missile) development have been seen.
The Hwasong-16 was presented to the world in the November 10, 2020 parade, while several Earth Observation Satellites (EOS) of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng series were launched into orbit.
There have been six tests that have threatened Japan, two during Kim Jong-il’s rule and four under Kim Jong-un, causing international tensions between DPRK and Japan, the USA, and ROK.
To transport its ICBMs, Korea needed large Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) trucks used to transport and launch missiles.
The backwardness of the Korean industry and international sanctions did not allow, in the first period, the DPRK to have TEL capable of transporting missiles. The problem was solved by buying Soviet-made TELs, which were received during the Cold War such as the MAZ-543, MAZ-7916 and MAZ-547 that are still very much in service. For the heavier 2000s missiles, the problem was solved by having the TEL developed and produced in China by Wanshan Special Vehicle.
In 2011, the United Nations accused China of supplying Korea with TELs of the 8-axle WS51200 model in a 16×12 configuration. Korea uses such 42-tonne vehicles to carry Hwasong-13 and Hwasong-14 missiles that have an estimated weight of over 40 tonnes.
Since 2017, a version of the 9-axle WS51200 has appeared to carry the 72-tonne Hwasong-15 missile, but it is unclear whether this version is manufactured in China or Korea. Given the development of the Korean industry, it would not be surprising that such a version may have been manufactured in Korea.
The TEL of the Hwasong-16 on the other hand is an 11-axle truck of unknown origin. One supposes it could also be a Korean vehicle developed based on the WS51200.
An interesting fact is that a direct launch of these missiles would lead to the destruction of the TEL due to the power and heat generated during the launch phase of the missiles. For this reason, the KPA has developed a launchpad that is transported together with the missile. When erected, the missile rests on the launching pad allowing the TEL to move away from the launch site without being damaged.
The KPASRF uses not only wheeled TELs but also tracked TELs. To decrease the cost of development and increase the speed of production and the commonality of spare parts, Chomna stretched tank hulls are used, adding two road wheels.
These vehicles were produced in smaller quantities than the wheeled TELs given the already low production numbers of North Korean tanks.
Goals and objectives of the Korean People’s Army
Ever since the large upscaling the KPA started undergoing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and despite the considerable technological gap that now separates it from its South Korean and American potential adversaries, North Korea’s army has always retained a decisively offensive doctrine and objectives. The main goal of the DPRK’s regime, one that may only appear achievable through the country’s military, is the reunification of Korea under the DPRK. Many of its investments reflect this offensive nature, such as the heavy investment in special forces, and in attempting to provide tools to cross the heavily fortified ‘Demilitarized Zone’ (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas, whether it is via submarine infiltration or tunnels dug under the DMZ. The goals of those infiltrations would be to mitigate South Korea’s defenses on the southern side of the border and to allow the armored and mechanized core of the KPA to cross through and occupy all of South Korea as swiftly as possible. In a way, this is an attempt to replicate the successes of the June 1950 invasion without repeating its mistakes.
Putting such an invasion plan into effect may, however, be little more than a complex suicide for the KPA and North Korea’s leadership, facing an enemy against which the KPA’s numbers are far less overwhelming than one may imagine. In terms of tanks, for example, the Republic of Korea Army’s arsenal alone is not much smaller than that of the KPA, but vastly more up-to-date. The South Korean air force on its own would dominate its northern adversary and that is all without even considering the tremendous help the United States and other allies would provide in case of a new conflict. Despite a focus on offensive capabilities, North Korea does not neglect its defense. It notably is known to have constructed a very large quantity of tunnels, underground facilities, and pre-prepared firing positions for its artillery, both towed and self-propelled. Despite this, even in a defensive war, it is apparent that the isolated and outclassed Hermit Kingdom is doomed to fail if it tries to repel a concerted invasion by its adversaries. In this context, the large and seemingly fanatical, though poorly equipped and likely poorly trained KPA remains as a deterrent – as does the nuclear branch in which North Korea has heavily invested during the last two decades. This nuclear branch, now a major source of worry for neighboring countries, has recently expanded, and is now theorized to have several dozens of warheads at its disposal – not only as its ballistic missile fleet largely been expanded but recently, trials of missile-launching submarines, found on the single Gorae-class as well as a modified Romeo-class warship, have taken place.
In the end, North Korea’s current continued existence is thanks to three factors: the relative lack of appetite for a major war in the West, China’s possible interference and the ability of the KPA to inflict unthinkable civilian losses on South Korea. Seoul, the capital of South Korea and home to 9.7 million people, is just 35 miles (56 km) away from the border, well in range of the KPA’s longest-range artillery the likes of the M1978 and M1989 Koksans and long-range rockets or missiles.
Myths and incorrect designations
The elusiveness of North Korea’s armor developments has led to a large number of myths and inaccuracies being popularized regarding the Hermit’s Kingdom’s armored vehicles. Although debunking them all would be impossible, there are some particularly common ones often repeated online:
North Korea received a large number of T-62s from the Soviet Union: There has never been evidence of large numbers of Soviet T-62s being delivered to North Korea. Actually, it appears very few, if any, were received by the DPRK. This makes the choice of the T-62 as the base for the Chonma-Ho series of main battle tanks particularly curious. It appears, however, that while North Korea may not have received a large number of T-62s, they may outright have acquired a production chain to manufacture those tanks locally, leading to the first model of the Chonma-Ho, very similar to the T-62 though it combines elements of the 1962 and 1972 models, entering service in 1978.
North Korea received T-72s or T-90s from the Soviet Union/Russia: Although North Korea is known to have acquired a T-72, this was only a single example in the form of a T-72 ‘Ural’ model, captured by Iran from Iraqi troops during the Iran-Iraq War and shipped to North Korea. At that time, although relations between the DPRK and the USSR had warmed up during the 1980s, the two countries were still far from being the close allies they once were, and North Korea’s financial situation may not have allowed them to acquire any considerable quantity of T-72 anyway. The rumors of the DPRK acquiring T-90 from the Russian Federation in the 1990s or 2000s are of the same caliber. Considering North Korea’s very poor economy and the fact that, while somewhat close to Russia, it is still far from an ally of the Russian Federation, the country getting its hands on any T-90 appears very unlikely, and has never been backed up by tangible evidence.
The Pokpung-ho: Ever since the early 2010s and public knowledge of the Chonma-216, the vehicle has often been known under the name of ‘Pokpung-ho’. Meaning ‘Storm’ in Korean, this name was, from the start, given by a number of analysts, which theorized at the time that the Chonma-216, of which the name was not yet known, was mostly a new platform, rather than a (to be fair very significant) progression of the Chonma series. Since then, more information is available, and the true nature of what is now known as the Chonma-216 is clearer, but the Pokpung-ho designation has remained in use all over the internet. Complicating things even more is the fact that the designation is sometimes used to describe not only the Chonma-216, but also the Chonma-215 or the Songun-Ho; a variety of Chonma-216 configurations are sometimes known as “Pokpung-ho I/II/III/IV”. In any case, the Pokpung-ho designation is not accurate to North Korea’s designations, and adds unnecessary complexity, creating the idea that a third main battle tank series exists in addition to the Chonma and Songun-Ho.
Studying the Hermit Kingdom’s tanks
North Korea is quite famously known to be one of the most obscure and isolated regimes in existence, particularly when it comes to its military equipment. The truth can be somewhat more complex than the clichés often are. North Korea is not entirely a Hermit Kingdom sealed from the rest of the world, and in fact, much of the DPRK’s revenue is obtained through interactions with other states. This is performed by sending Korean workers to work in foreign but still highly-controlled facilities for other states – Russia and China most notably.
However, export sales of military equipment are an important source of revenue as well, and over the decades, North Korea has sold a wide variety of equipment to an equally surprising range of buyers. One would not particularly be surprised to see North Korean equipment in the hands of other “Axis of Evil” nations. North Korean anti-ship or intermediate-range ballistic missiles, as well as coastal submarines, have been sold to Iran, for example. One would be more surprised to hear that the DPRK had even sold equipment to traditional Western allies. Among these, the United Arab Emirates acquired North Korea’s Scud-B missile copy, the Hwasong-5, in the late 1980s, as well as 240 mm multiple rocket launchers. An M1989 Koksan 170 mm self-propelled gun even showed up in an Emirati military exhibition in 2005. North Korean exports go further than rockets, missiles, and small arms, and expand within the realms of armored vehicles. Over the years, the DPRK has sold Chonma-Ho tanks to Iran, the same Chonma-Hos as well as 323 armored personnel carriers and M1977 SPGs to Ethiopia, or laser rangefinders for 100 mm guns which have equipped a large portion of Syria’s T-54/T-55 fleet. In most regards, the so-called “Hermit Kingdom” tends to be as much of an arms exporter as it can despite the heavy sanctions imposed onto the DPRK.
However, it remains true that North Korea’s own military developments are very much shielded from the outside world outside of potentially interested foreign buyers. Truth be told, North Korean armored vehicles are in an odd position when it comes to their exposure to the public eye. One of the most visually impressive parts of the KPA, short perhaps only of the ballistic missiles, they are pretty much systematically present in North Korean military parades, which tend to be commonplace. Nonetheless, obtaining any information outside of these parades is very rare and mostly unreliable, and as such, much of the knowledge of North Korea’s equipment is deduced from observing the vehicles in parades, their equipment, their nature, and their potential origin, and tracing back how the vehicle may have been developed, and from what. As such, the knowledge of North Korea’s armor is very much dependent on what North Korea is willing to show to the world through its propaganda services – and there rarely is such a thing as an exactitude when it comes to data or production numbers when it comes to North Korea’s armored vehicles.
The future of the DPRK’s armor: Evolving military, paper tiger, or both?
The last decade has seen enormous evolution in the armored vehicles fielded by the Korean People’s Army. It has barely been ten years since, in 2010, North Korea showcased its first major departure from the T-62 in the form of the Songun-Ho, alongside a new, seemingly somewhat modern armored personnel carrier, the M2010. In the years since, North Korea has showcased a new, seemingly modern and potent self-propelled gun in the form of the M2018, and recently in 2020 and 2021, a new, most likely Songun-Ho based but considerably evolved main battle tank (though how much of it is real and how much is fake remains very unclear and debatable) as well as a 122 mm-armed wheeled self-propelled gun seemingly inspired by the American Stryker.
All this fleet of new vehicles being introduced should not make anyone forget that North Korea maintains, and still runs on, an overwhelming proportion of old and outdated vehicles. North Korea appears to have, even more so than basically any other regimes in the world, have retained a policy of keeping military vehicles into service for as long as feasible, even way beyond their obsolescence, and this remains obvious now. For each Songun-Ho, new M2020 MBT, or even highly upgraded Chonma-Ho 216, there are likely several early Chonma-Ho which offer little more than an original T-62, or even worse, T-54/55 or Type 59s. For all the new wheeled armored personnel carriers, there remain fleets of once decent, but now long obsolete 323s, or even BTR-40s. For all the new M2018 self-propelled guns, there are vast fleets of open-topped, casemate Tokchon and 323 self-propelled guns which were already primitive in the 1970s, and are even more now. The North Korean regime does not appear to be planning to truly replace any of these old models – for all we know, some types like the 323 may even still be in production – and while the shiny façade of new armored vehicles likely translates some real evolution within the KPA, the quantity of obsolete armor remains tremendous within the army’s ranks.
THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun, Stijn Mitzer, Joost Oliemans
Oryx Blog – North Korean Vehicles
SIPRI Arms Transfers Database
With thanks to Arturo Giusti who provided the paragraph on North Korea’s ballistic missiles development