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North Korean Tanks Seon'gun-915 (2015)

North Korean Main Battle Tank - 150 built - in development

The Case of Songun-Ho, an alternative to the Pok'Pung Ho

The Seon'gun-915 MBT is quite a foggy tank today in the North Korean ordnance was the country being very secretive, not a lot has filtered through. Only so far, parade models had been displayed in little numbers. There is no written rule as North Korean tanks in development should be kept secret or being paraded, so most specialists analysts thought it's alikely a pre-serie for possible future conversion of the early T-62 park and in the future, Chonma-Ho park. In the 1970s, North Korea already had many T-62 medium tanks in service, 970 transferred from USSR according to the SIPRI arms transfer database (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2013). Of these, an unknown number has been produced locally, with possible Chinese help as themselves devised the Type 69/79 based on a captured model in 1969. From there, the local version was an upgraded of the basic T-62 soon called Ch'ŏnma-ho, of which around 1,200 had been produced. Things gets foggy again as to determine how many of these were actual conversions of the former T-62 versus new built tanks. Production went on in the early 1980s and through several iterations, up ti the model IV, or the mode V, later assimilated to the current Seon'gun.

Based on the Chonma-Ho

The Chonma-ho (Pegasus-Tiger) was at first not an upgraded, but a downgraded local copy, with a 115mm 2A20 gun, less performing than the original gun. The Chonma-ho was missed the laser rangefinder and accuracy was pretty poor. The North Koreans never managed to build enough to replace all previous models, notably the T-34/76 and T-54/55s. Imported T-62s are also referred to as Chonma-ho to maked matter worse, and prevent any correct evaluation of the park actually in service. The Chonma-ho II had a laser rangefinder and a few armor upgrades like aa thin spaced armor kit, produced (apart perhaps a few parts) in self-reliance ("Juche-Po"). Some Chonma-Hos were allegedly exported to Iran and perhaps see action in the Iran-Iraq war.

Songun-ho I
Songun-Ho of the early type in a 2016 Parade

Development went on until the Mark IV with rear turret ERA and other modifications, and then the model 98, 214 and 215 assimilated to the next Pop'kung Ho. In the 90s, early 2000s, North Korea acquired a few T-72 MBTs through very indirect and illegal ways, and possibly a T-90S. Many elements from them were therefore reverse-engineered. This modified the Chonma-ho extensively, particularly from the III-V series with new features such as a thermal gun shroud, ballistic computer, advanced gun stabilizer, new composite armor, and an ERA kit (Kontakt copy) and new 750hp engine. The Chonma-ho V also received a copy of the Russian 2A46 125mm smoothbore gun and its autoloader. Its combat value is questionable so far. Since much older models are still in service to bolster the numbers, it is generally believed a breakthough tactic would be used in case of an invasion of the south, by sacrificing many of older models in diversion attack of vanguard "cannon fodder" whereas the best Popkung Ho and later models of the Chonma-Ho would be used for spreaheading less well defended sector. None are believed to be equal to the K1.

further developments, post-1990

The North Korean were perfectly aware of the seemingly easy destruction of many Iraqi T-72s during the Gulf War and the army staff decided to create a more radical, heavily upgraded variant, using recent imported components made for the late T-72M and possibly T-90. It was named Pokpung-ho (Storm Tiger), with a first prototype possibly from 1992 but only shown at a public parade in 2002, leading some experts naming it "M-2002". To make matters worse, models numbers are based on the North Korean Juche calendar, which completely differs from the accepted world (Western) calendar. The early Pokpung-ho carried the old 115mm smoothbore, the next had the new 125mm 2A46, or at least a copy of it. The hull was a longer version of the T-62 but it was made longer with an extra roadwheel pair. The tailor-made welded turret is reminiscent of the T-72, ahd had composite armor as on the T-72M and new engine (rated for about 1000-1200 hp). A computerized fire control system was setup and it was revealed in 2002, a decade long development Production estimation ranges between 200 to 300, produced from 1992 to 2015 and only given to the elite armored units.

Design of the Seon’gun

The Seon’gun-915 tank started with a Chon'ma-Ho hull, mated with a brand new cast turret perhaps based on a modified T-62 one, taller than the original. The considerable lenght of the box and canister protruding behind the turret does not tell if its communicating with turret interior, not containing an ammo magazine, or used for other loads. On very rare photos from above, nothing bertrays the presence of "blown-off-doors" above this turret bustle. This main battle tank specifications are 44 tons, for 3.5m wide and 2.416m tall. The hull is clearly related to the Pok'pung-ho, a stretched Chonma-ho hull, same size by doing comparisons. Neverthless, there are some differences like sheet covers over the fenders (as on the T-72/Type-96) but these doesn't seem closed boxes, only covering the upper, outer and front side. Under them, the boxes layout and cans is believed similar to the T-62, apart from the rear of the right one with rectangular grilles covering the air intake. Also the frontal plate is partly covered with reactive armour boxes. The skirts are made of rubber sheets reinforced with thicker sheets inspired by the T-80U. The tracks are similar to those of Chonma 214, 215 and 216 and early Chon'ma-Ho and T-62, fitted however with possibly removable rubber pads. Another very specific aspect is the rear extension added to the turret bustle. The engine deck grilles seems closed by folding covers while there is a left exhaust outlet with two rectangular openings, on the rear upper part of the right cover of fenders, which are also a peculiar aspect of the design of the Seon'gun.

Powerplant of the Songun-Ho

By default it is believed the engine was the same as the Popkung'Ho, a V12 of 1200 hp, likely a V-46 offshoot and reverse-engineered from the T-72. Which for 44 tonnes procured quite an excellent power-to-weight ratio at top speed of 60 to 70 kph or more. Some speculated it was 72 km/h with acceleration to 32 km/h in under 4 seconds. Performances are deduced from similiar tanks, they are able to cross 2.8m wide trenches, ford rivers of up to 1.2m of depth (or even 5m with fording kit). It has some kind of composite armor and ERA, giving it the frontal protection equivalent of 900mm with additional 500mm of protection versus HEAT rounds provided by the ERA kit (this obviously sounds like a piece of North Korean propaganda rather than actual info). This MBT can cross 2.8m wide trenches, ford rivers up to 1.2 m of depth without preparation and 5 m with fording kit. The track section in contact with the ground is supposed to be 4093 mm according to calculations from a profile photo, and known size of the roadwheels, which are smaller than the stabdard stamped ones, although identical in design.

Armament of the Songun-Ho

The tank is allegedly armed with a 125mm gun (elevation +15 -7 degrees), a new model with manual loading instead of the usual 2A46 loading mechanism. This partly explains the massive bustle-mounted ammo rack. By measuring the dimensions of the fume extractor and location on the barrel, it matches the 115mm 2A20 layout. This possibly made the 115mm smoothbore a backup for extra hulls. The turret is given the traditional KPV heavy machine gun KPV (14.5 mm), mated to the loader's hatch. The support is very similar to that of a DShKM but with a longer support and aiming device. There is also a coaxial gun, and roof support for a single SA-16 Manpad surface-to-air missile. The latter is close to, and actioned by the tank commander. Hatches are of the same model as on the T-62A but there is also a wind sensor behind the tank commander's post. Also the turret shows a radio mast, and for active protection, four smoke mortars on both sides. The Fire Control System seems the same as the popkung'ho, comprising a Laser rangefinder and Night sights. Ammunition-wide it is easy to assume this model carries the same HE, AP/APFSDS sharedby other MBTs in the arsenal. For ballistic characteristics, look at the T-72. The APFSDS is assumed to penetrate 440 mm. The SA-16 MANPADS is 6 km range at 570m/s or Mach 1.9, guided by Dual waveband infra-red and Directed-energy blast 4.5kgs fragmentation warhead. In addition to the 14.5 mm KPV, it offers also a substantial way to defend against helicopters, such as the Kiowa, Bell cobra, MD 500 TOW Defender, or MBB Bo-105. It's left to guess for the much better AH-64E Guardian and upcoming KAH Surion.

Protection of the Songun-Ho

This model is interesting by showing various levels of protection all around: The obvious ones are six ERA blocks on the turret and about 32 small bricks on the glacis, but the obviously larger turret could have been internally fitted with a "dolly parton" type composite armour. The flanks are protected by semi-hard composed side skirts to defeat ATGMS, and in addition to the the active protection of the eight smoke projectors at the turret rear, and possible warning system (installed with the sensor mast). There are extra ERA bricks buried on the frontal part of the turret roof as well, 12 in all, as shwon by overhead photos. A rubber skirt also protects the downward front glacis part. Exact figures are of course unknown, but it is generally assumed the Songun-Ho turret+ERA frontal section is equivalent to 900 mm of RHA. Also for active protection, there is allegedly an IR jammer, mated along the automatic fire extinguisher, and an anti-EMP protection. Of course by default it assumed these tanks also have a standard collective NBC protection, with internal lining and overpressure.

Songun-ho II
Songun-Ho of the late type in a 2018 Parade

Operational History/production and speculations

Production figures are unknown, the tank was first revealed in a 2010 parade and has been always featured since. Latery a seemingly modified version appeared in 2018, called by specialists "Songun-II". Camouflaged, it was showing an additional array of ERA bricks on the turret roof, minir turret bustle changes, and the twin 152 mm Bulsae-3 ATGM launcher as well as a twin grenaded launchers under mask. Quite an impressive combination added to the twin MANPADS fitted on a left-side turret mount. But it appeared they were just Popkung-Ho of the elite unit. The title, Songun-Ho is rather vague and possibly a propaganda creation. 'Songun' means 'Military first', the North Korean policy, while the suffix 'ho' simply means either model or type. The identifier 915, apart the date, has no known meaning.

Pokpung Ho specs (estimates)

Dimensions7x 3.5x 2.2m
Total weight, battle ready44-45 tons
Crew4 (driver, Cdr, gunner, loader)
PropulsionV12 diesel 1000-1100 hp
SuspensionTorsion bars
Speed (road)Est. 60 km/h
RangeEst. 370 to 500 km
Armament125mm sb, 14.5mm KPVT, 7.62mm KPT coax.
ArmorERA, composite, est. 900mm max penetration
Total production150+ (current)
Songun-ho I
Songun-Ho of the early type in a 2016 Parade
Songun-ho II
Songun-Ho II of the late type in a 2018 Parade


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