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)
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||~6.75 m (hull only) or 10.40m (hull and gun)/3.50 m/unknown (estimations)|
|Total Weight, Battle Ready||~44 tonnes|
|Engine||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)|
|Crew||4 (driver, commander, gunner, loader)|
|Main gun||Local 125 mm gun derived from the 2A46M, with laser rangefinder, IR searchlight, crosswind sensor|
|Secondary armament||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)|
|Armor||Composite array & ERA claimed to be equivalent to 1,400 mm (turret); hull armor unknown|
|Total Production||Unknow, about 500 sometimes mentioned|
THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun, Stijn Mitzer, Joost Oliemans
Oryx Blog – North Korean vehicles