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Modern North Korean Tanks

M-2020

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (2020)
Main Battle Tank – At Least 9 Built

The date 10th October 2020 marked the 75th Anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), the far-left party of the totalitarian one-party Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This took place in P’yŏngyang, the North Korean capital, through Kim Il-sung Square. During this parade, the new Hwasŏng-17 nuclear InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) were shown for the first time and grabbed the international headlines. Additionally, and also catching plenty of attention between the plethora of new armored vehicles, a new Main Battle Tank (MBT) that has intrigued many military analysts and enthusiasts was seen for the first time and has aroused great interest.

Eight of the nine M-2020 prototypes during a parade to celebrate the 90th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Korean People’s Army on 25th April 2022. For their fourth official exhibition, they were repainted with a new three-tone camouflage. Source: KCNA

Unfortunately, not much is known about this new vehicle yet. The Chosŏn-inmin’gun, or Korean People’s Army (KPA), has not yet revealed its official name, as it does for each vehicle of its arsenal, due to the North Korean strategy of not revealing any details about their military equipment to the Western world. Some unofficial sources referred to is as the Juche Type 109 Tank. Thus, throughout this article, the vehicle will be referred to as M-2020, as all the Western sources have unofficially baptized it.

Apart from that, all North Korean weapons without an official name revealed by the Korean People’s Army receive a US Department of Defense (DoD) designation that, for the vehicles, is composed of “M-” followed by the year of their first appearance. Following this logic, in this case, it would be M-2020.

The M-2020 is an almost completely new design that seems to have very little in common with previous MBTs developed in North Korea. It is also the first vehicle developed after the Songun-915, which had also been first presented in a parade, in the same place, in 2010.

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North Korean Tanks

In the very last phases of the Second World War, between August and September 1945, Iosif Stalin’s Soviet Union occupied, in agreement with the United States, the northern part of the Korean peninsula, going as far down as the 38th parallel. The Soviet occupation lasted for three years and three months. In that period, the charismatic Kim Il-sung was appointed as new Korean leader.

Kim had been a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese during the occupation of Korea in the 1930s. Then continued to fight the Japanese during their invasion of China, became captain of the Red Army in 1941, and, with this title, in September 1945, he entered P’yŏngyang.

Under his leadership, the newly formed country quickly broke-off all relations with South Korea, under US control. DPRK became increasingly close to the two Communist superpowers, the Soviet Union and the newly formed People’s Republic of China, which had recently ended its own bloody civil war.

Most of the North Korean military’s early equipment was of Soviet origin, with thousands of weapons, such as rifles, submachine guns, machine guns, artillery pieces, T-34-85s, SU-76s, and Soviet-made aircraft arriving in North Korea. The outbreak of the Korean War, which lasted from June 1950 to July 1953, completely broke any relationship with South Korea, pushing North Korea to become even closer to the two Communist regimes, even if, after Stalin’s death, the ties with the Soviet Union began to deteriorate.

T-34-85s in Kim Il-sung Square in P’yŏngyang during a parade for the National Liberation Day of Korea, 15th August 1960. Source: topwar.com

The Kim Family’s MBTs

After the Korean War, the core of the North Korean armored formations, the T-34-85, started being largely supplanted by T-54s and T-55s. In the case of the T-55, as well as the PT-76, at least local assembly, if not full production, was initiated in North Korea from the late 1960s onward, giving a head start to the country’s armored vehicles industry. Bolstered by those Soviet deliveries, as well as the Type 59, Type 62, and Type 63 from China, North Korea built a large armored force from the 1960s and 1970s.

A couple of T-54s produced in North Korea during a parade through the streets of P’yŏngyang in early 2010s. These tanks are armed with North Korea’s iconic 14.5 mm KPV heavy machine gun and HT-16PGJ MANPADS, derived from the Soviet 9K310 Igla-1E. Source: KCBC

Towards the late 1970s, North Korea began the production of its first indigenous main battle tank. The first tank produced by the North Korean nation was the Ch’ŏnma (English: Pegasus) which started as a mere T-62 copy with minor and obscure modifications. Interestingly enough, despite some rumors of the contrary, North Korea is not known to have acquired any T-62 from abroad.

A group of early production Ch’ŏnmas (US DoD designation: Chonma-Ho I) on parade. Some of North Korea’s own modifications on the T-62 project are visible, such as the 14.5 mm KPV heavy machine gun, rear turret storage boxes, single handle on the turret side, and rubber-padded tracks. Source: KCBC

The Ch’ŏnma went through a large number of evolutions and versions from its introduction to this day; in the west, these are often rationalized under the designations of Chonma-Ho I, II, III, IV, V ,and VI given by the US DoD, but in truth, those do not paint the full picture, as there are a lot more than six configurations and variants.

Ch’ŏnma-214 grab all the attention of Western journalists at the parade in mid 2010s. Source: KCTV

The Ch’ŏnma tanks have been in service since the last years of the 1970s. The obscure nature of North Korea means an accurate estimation of their numbers is hard to come by, with some sources claiming 800 produced and others up to 2,600. Regardless, the tanks have obviously been produced in very large numbers, with some early models even being exported to Ethiopia and Iran, and have formed the backbone of North Korea’s armored force in the last decades.

With the arrival of a Soviet T-72 Ural and perhaps of a T-72M from an unknown country (Iran or Romania according to the main sources), the DPRK technicians studied it and presented some upgrades to the original Ch’ŏnma series.

The only known photo of a T-72 Ural in DPRK service, here depicted behind Kim Jong-il in the 1980s. Source: The Armed Forces of North Korea

The Ch’ŏnma tanks have been the subject of many modifications, which have often confused enthusiasts. The most notable example of this is the so-called P’okp’ung-Ho. These are, in fact, later models known in Korea as Ch’ŏnma-215 and Ch’ŏnma-216, (first observed around 2002, which has led to them sometimes being called M-2002 as well). These, having added another roadwheel and numerous new internal and external components, being essentially hybrids between older Ch’ŏnmas and the T-72.

A row of Ch’ŏnma-216, incorrectly called by western media as ‘P’okp’ung-Ho II’ on parade. Despite the six road wheels, new welded turret with add-on armor and the plethora of secondary armament on the turret roof added from 2017, it is still considered by the KPA to be a Ch’ŏnma. Source: KCBC

This has led to considerable confusion when North Korea actually introduced a tank that was mostly new, the Songun-915, first seen in 2010, which featured a large cast turret with a 125 mm smoothbore gun (whereas late Ch’ŏnmas had adopted welded turrets which appear to have retained 115 mm guns) and a new hull with a central driving position. All upgrades were introduced after studying the Soviet T-72 Ural/T-72M.

It should to be noted that the later models of the Ch’ŏnma as well as the Songun are often seen with additional, turret-mounted armaments. These have included anti-tank guided missiles, such as the Bulsae-2, MANPADS, such as locally-produced variants of the Igla, 14.5 mm 64 heavy machine guns (North Korean copy of the Soviet KPV, also known as Type 64), and even dual 30 mm automatic grenade launchers. All of these vehicles have a clear visual, design and technological descendance from Soviet-style vehicles. It ought to be noted, however, that, particularly in the last twenty years, North Koreans vehicles have evolved quite considerably from their roots, and can hardly be called mere copies of vintage Soviet armor anymore.

A row of Songun-915 on parade in P’yŏngyang in 2018. These new vehicles, first presented in 2010, are characterized by a central driving position in the hull, new cast turret armed with a 125 mm smoothbore gun and, in this version, Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) blocks on the front of the hull and turret. Source: KCBC

Before its First Public Appearance

In late 2015, a North Korean defector to South Korea made a somewhat absurd statement during an interrogation. He claimed that there was at least one Western-style MBT in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that he thought was South Korean. The tank was studied in a place that he called the North Korean Tank Research Center but it was unknown to him how it arrived there. According to the same defector, the tank was equipped with a 120 mm smoothbore gun, new composite armor, an automatic target tracking system, advanced optical equipment, and an engine with about 1,000 hp. He also said that the North Korean officers were scared by the capabilities of this vehicle compared to the DPRK’s tanks.

At first, South Korean military intelligence considered these claims phony, but in the next few months, two more North Korean defectors stated similar claims. In response, the South Korean Ministry of Defence initiated an internal analysis of the Republic Of Korea Army (ROKA) to check if there were any missing tanks. In late March 2016, the final verdict was that no tanks were missing in the ROKA’s inventories.

The overall conclusion in military circles was that it was not a South Korean tank. Many analysts tried to establish what type of tank it could have been, to no avail. A hypothesis was that the tank in question could have been a US M1A1M Abrams captured by Iranian-backed militias in early 2015.

An M1A1M Abrams captured by Kata’ib Hezbollah being transported on a M1000 semi-trailer towed by an Oshkosh M1070 tank transporter in January 2015. Source: longwarjournal.org

A total of 9 M1A1M Abrams were captured from the Iraqi Army between late 2014 and early 2016 by Kata’ib Hezbollah (a radical Shiite paramilitary group) and Badr Organization (a Shiite paramilitary organization). An unknown number of these tanks were transferred to Iran where they were evaluated, while others remained in the hands of Shiite groups to fight the Iraqi Army and the Islamic State.

Having a strong relationship with Iran, North Korea could plausibly receive a single captured tank in exchange for military hardware. Similar situations, as seen, already occurred in the past, during the Iran-Iraq war North Korea received a T-72 Ural captured by the Iranians from the Iraqis in exchange of small arms and 122 mm rocket launchers.

Badr Organization militants posing for a photo with an former Iraqi M1A1M and other US equipment in 2015. Source: longwarjournal.org

This hypothesis is not supported by any kind of evidence. The absence of official information on the start of the M-2020’s development makes it impossible to confirm the possibility that at least one M1A1M arrived in the DPRK and was evaluated during the development of the M-2020.

The claims of North Korean defectors may simply be explained as the opinions of inexperienced military personnel who lacked the proper knowledge to distinguish between the M-2020 prototype and a Western tank.

Design of Kim’s New Tank

The layout of the new North Korean MBT is, at first glance, reminiscent of standard Western MBTs, deviating significantly from previous tanks produced in North Korea.

These older vehicles have obvious similarities to Soviet or Chinese tanks from which they are derived, such as the T-62 and T-72. In general, these tanks are of a smaller size compared to Western MBTs, designed for lower weights and costs and for rapid transport by rail or air, while NATO MBTs are, usually, more expensive and larger, providing greater comfort to the crew.

Why the Particular Desert Camouflage?

Many South Korean and international sources have questioned the desert camouflage used in the M-2020’s first appearances. Indeed, such camouflage is totally different from the typical Soviet-era green monochrome camouflage used in North Korea until now.

One suggestion is that the vehicle was in sand yellow to be offered for sale to Middle Eastern nations. Another suggestion is that it was based on Iranian or People’s Liberation Army (PLA) camouflage schemes similar to the M-2020’s.

Several M-2020s on parade in October 2020. To the untrained eye, the vehicles might look like an M1 Abrams. Source: KCTV

The last suggestion is that the vehicle was made with this type of camouflage to make the tank similar to the US Army M1 Abrams. In the event of an all-out war between North and South Korea, the United States would intervene on behalf of its Asian ally. The North Koreans could exploit the similarity between the M-2020 and the M1 Abrams to sow panic in the South Korean rear lines. A similar strategy adopted by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge in which some German tanks and vehicles were camouflaged and modified to look like US vehicles and confuse the US Army.

Of course, South Korean and US soldiers would have no problem distinguishing the vehicles, but civilians could easily fall victim to an M-2020 disguised as an Abrams. This would allow the North Koreans to commit war crimes against the civilian population and then accuse the United States. This is not an absurd theory, as the KPA has no problem making its Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) look like civilian trucks.

MLRS disguised as dump trucks during 9th September 2023 parade for the 75th Anniversary of the Founding of the Republic. Source: KCBC

It is worth pointing out that in some of the last military trainings occurred in North Korea for which there is footage available, some older Ch’ŏnma-216 were spotted with brown and dark green camouflages with khaki and brown stripes, commonly used by the ROKA armored formations. This seems a similar situation in which the KPA is trying to make its tanks resemble enemy vehicles.

Some Ch’ŏnma-216 lined up during a training in 2023. These tanks have camouflage clearly inspired by the South Korean one. Source: twitter.com @nonnbirinavy
A South Korean T-80U of Soviet production and a K239L ‘Chunmoo’ MLRS with peculiar ROKA camouflage. Compare the camouflage with the photo above to note the similarities. Source: wikipedia.org

Hull, Running Gear, and Engine

The hull of the new tank is completely different from previous North Korean MBTs and is more similar to the modern MBT’s, in particular, the Russian T-14 Armata MBT presented in Moscow for the first time during the parade for the 70th Anniversary of the Victory of the Great Patriotic War on 9th May 2015.

The Russian T-14 Armata during the 9th May 2015 parade at the Red Square in Moscow. Comparing the T-14 Armata’s silhouette with the image of an M-2020 on parade below highlights their similarities. Source: wikipedia.org

The driver is placed centrally at the front of the hull, and has a pivoting hatch with two episcopes. The driver’s position suggests that the vehicle had part of the ammunition stored behind the driving compartment, translating into a safer position compared to older tanks, such as the Ch’ŏnmas, T-62s, and Leopard 1s just to name a few, where the main ammunition racks were on the driver’s side, in the front of the vehicle, increasing exposure.

The running gear is composed of seven large diameter road wheels protected by side skirts. On the lower part, a polymer skirt (the black one that can be seen in the pictures) almost completely covers the wheels, obscuring most of the running gear. Many detractors of North Korean vehicles have pointed out that this is a way to hide the old Ch’ŏnma or Songun hull from view, although it seems more plausible that the polymer skirts are meant to prevent mud splashing and dust kick-up.

The M-2020 showing off its hull equipped with side skirts that cover the majority of its running gear. Source: KCBC

Another piece of evidence that negates the hypothesis that the hull of M-2020 is simply a modified hull of old MBTs is provided by the Korean Central Broadcasting Committee’s (KCBC) own parade videos. In a parade shot, an M-2020 passes over the camera, showing-off its undercarriage and highlighting its torsion bar suspension.

M-2020 undercarriage, showing off the torsion bars and wheels. Source: KCTV

As on nearly all the modern MBTs, the sprocket wheel is at the rear, while the idler is at the front. The tracks are a new style for a North Korean tank. In fact, they seem to be a double pin rubber-padded type which, during the Cold War, had only been adopted by Western vehicles. In recent decades, these have also been adopted by nations, such as China, Iran, and Russia on MBTs such as the Type 99, Karrar, and T-14 Armata respectively.

The rear part of the sides of the hull are protected by slat-armor. This type of armor, which protects the sides of the engine compartment, is often used on modern military vehicles and is effective against certain types of infantry anti-tank weapons with High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) warheads, such as Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPGs) or Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs). On the left side, the slat-armor has a hole to access the muffler.

The rear of the vehicle is higher than the front. This was probably done to increase the space available in the engine bay, probably in order to house an upgraded version of the 12-cylinder Ch’ŏnma-216 and Songun-915 engines delivering, according to estimates, from 1,000 to 1,200 hp. This power is adequate for a tank with an estimated weight of about 50 tonnes, which exceeds the usual weight of North Korean tanks, usually between 37 to 44 tonnes (early Ch’ŏnma models and Songun, respectively).

 
M-2020 (top) and T-72B3 (bottom) rears showing-off cooling grilles and plugs. Sources: KCBC and topwar.ru

Obviously, specifications such as maximum speed, range, or fuel consumption of the M-2020 are unknown.

Turret

If the hull, in its shape, reminds of the T-14 Armata, the most modern MBT developed by the Russian Army, the turret resembles that of the M1 Abrams, the standard MBT of the US Army, or the Chinese MBT-3000 export tank, also known as the VT-4.

Several M-2020s during their first appearance on 10th October 2020. Note the turret’s shape and its devices. Source: KCBC

Structurally, the turret is very different from that of an Abrams. In fact, the lower part of the turret has four holes for some Active Protection System (APS) tubes. On the right side of the turret is a support for two ATGM tubes.

On the right side of the turret’s roof is the commander’s cupola, on which, on the forward section, the Commander’s Independent Thermal Viewer (CITV) is placed. A gunner’ sight is placed just below it. Both the sights are usually covered by protective shields during parades. These shields protect the fragile and expansive optics from grenade splinters, shrapnel, dust, mud, and bullets on the battlefield. The gunner sight seems to be a sort of Belarus Sosna-U copy as mounted on the T-72B (from B2 sub variants), T-80BVM, and T-90M. The Sosna-U is a gunner’s optic developed by the Belarusian JSC Peleng and produced in Russia. It is equipped with daylight sight, thermal sight (Catherine-FC produced by the French company Thales), and laser rangefinder. For obvious reasons, France did not help in any way to develop these optics.

The M-2020 optic (left) and the Russian Sosna-U optic (right). Source: KCTV and Topawar.ru with highlights from the author
A bad quality frame taken from the propaganda video of the live firing test published on 27th July 2023. The commander’s and gunner’s optics are without the protective shields, as are the APS radars. KCTV

A Remote Weapon System (RWS) armed with an automatic grenade launcher is placed in the center of the turret and, on the left side, is a cupola for the loader. This one has a fixed front episcope to check the surrounding area.

Scheme showing the systems on the turret of M-2020. Source: KCTV with highlights from the author

On the turret’s left is what looks like a night vision camera. If the vehicle is really equipped with a night vision camera, this would be a significant addition to the North Korean arsenal (M-2020 would be the first North Korean tank equipped with such a device), sensibly increasing the capabilities of the tank during night operations or when visibility is reduced. It should be noted that many modern armored vehicles that are not equipped with night vision are proving less effective, as seen in the current conflict in Ukraine (as of 2024).

There is also another fixed episcope on the right of the commander’s cupola, an anemometer, a radio antenna on the right and, on the left side, a crosswind sensor.

On the rear, slat armor covers the sides and rear of the turret and four smoke launchers on each side. On the rear and on the sides are three hooks used to lift up the turret.

Scheme showing the systems on the turret’s rear. Source: KCTV via Korea Now with highlights from the author

On the rear part of the turret, there are some hatches that seem to be blow-out panels for the rear ammunition rack. If this statement is correct, it increases the survivability of the crew and would be a step forward for North Korean industry. Previous tank models relied on Soviet-style racks that have amply been demonstrated to be vulnerable to enemy fire.

A M-2020’s turret rear. Under the cage armor, an unknown hole is located. It seems to be a quick ammunition loading hatch or a spent casings ejector. Source: KCTV

Armament

The main armament seems to be, like in the case of the Songun-915, the North Korean copy of the 125 mm Russian 2A46 smoothbore tank gun and not the 115 mm North Korean copy of the Soviet 115 mm 2A20 gun. The dimensions are obviously larger and it is also unlikely that the North Koreans would have mounted an older generation gun on what appears to be such a technologically advanced vehicle.

From the photos, it can also be logically assumed that the cannon is not capable of firing ATGMs, which Russian 125 mm guns can do, because the vehicle is equipped with an external missile launcher. This is not such a strange thing. The North Koreans seem to have always rejected the idea of launching missiles from the gun barrel on all their vehicles armed with 100 mm, 115 mm, or 125 mm guns, preferring launchers mounted outside the turret.

On the barrel of the gun, in addition to the smoke extractor, is a Muzzle Reference System (MRS) similar to the one mounted on the Chinese Type 99A MBT. The MRS allows the gunner to constantly check the alignment of the cannon with the axis of the line-of-sight and correct the linearity between gun and sight. To check the linearity of the gun, the MRS is composed of a device that points a laser beam over the gun (the small box over the barrel) and a receiver that reflects the beam to the device.

The M-2020’s main armament is equipped with a Muzzle Reference System without a protective shield on the laser emitter. Source: KCTV

Many sources hypothesized that the small box over the barrel is a laser rangefinder. This seems to be incorrect because there is a receiver mounted over the barrel’s tip. As with many other modern MBTs, the M-2020’s laser rangefinder is probably placed inside the gunner’s optic.

Another assumption that can be made is that the gun is not equipped with an autoloader because there are three crew members inside the turret. The tank’s commander is behind the gunner, on the right side of the turret, and the loader on the left side. This can be assumed due to the fact that the CITV and gunner’s sight are one in front of the other on the right side, as on many Western tanks, where the commander is seated behind the gunner and has similar positions for the optics.

The secondary armament consists of a coaxial machine gun, probably a 7.62 mm Type 82, the North Korean copy of the Soviet PKT, mounted not in the gun mantlet but on the side of the turret.

Interestingly enough, the M-2020 is the first North Korean tracked armored fighting vehicle developed without a 14.5 mm 64 heavy machine gun. In its place is a 30 mm automatic grenade launcher mounted on a RWS controlled from inside the vehicle. The gun is probably a copy of the Soviet AGS-17 or AGS-30 automatic grenade launchers and is plausibly substitutable with medium or heavy machine guns even if, until today, no other weapons were spotted installed on the M-2020 RWS.

A view of the turret’s roof showing-off the Remote Weapon System armed with the 30 mm automatic grenade launcher on a M-2020. Source: KCNA

To fire the missiles, the right-mounged launcher had to be erected by 90°, as on the US M2 Bradley.

The M-2020 with the ATGM launchers erected and part of the commander’s CITV without its protective shield. Source: KCTV

The decision of maintaining an external ATGM launcher instead of modern and safer Gun-Launched Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (GL-ATGM) is probably due to the different caliber of the gun.

A standard GL-ATGM has to be of the same caliber as the main gun of the armored vehicle to be launched from it. This means that the missile would have to be smaller than field ATGMs and its dimensions reduce the warhead, decreasing the missile’s penetration. Adopting an ATGM on external launchers also permits the tank to use the same anti-tank team’s missiles, reducing the problems of mass-producing new missiles.

Bulsae-2 ATGMs mounted on the turret roof of a Ch’ŏnma-216. Behind the crew member there is the same cross-wind sensor mounted on the M-2020. Source: KCBC

Nothing official has been reported on the exact model of missiles carried in the M-2020’s tubes. Some sources have suggested that the missiles carried are Bulsae-2 (Bulsae means ‘Firebird’ in Korean), copies of the 9K111 ‘Fagot’ (NATO designation AT-4 ‘Spigot’) Semi-Automatic Command to Line Of Sight (SACLOS) anti-tank guided missiles or its laser beam-guided version, the Bulsae-3. Other ATGM models transported by the tank could either be the Bulsae-4 and Bulsae-5. The first one seems to be a unlicensed copy of the RAFAEL SPIKE with Non-Line-of-Sight (NLOS) fiber optic guidance and the second is a 9M133 ‘Kornet’ (NATO designation AT-14 ‘Spriggan’) laser beam-guided ATGM that North Korea had reverse engineered after some examples were delivered from Syria.

Although the exact model of the missiles is not reported, it is clear that the missiles could engage both ground and rotary-wing targets, increasing the performance of the North Korean tank.

Bulsae-5s mounted on field tripods loaded on trailers towed by tractors of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards paramilitary unit of the Korean Army. Source: KCTV

The vehicle is not equipped with MANPADS launchers, unlike all of North Korea’s MBTs and many AFVs.

Protection

The M-2020 is equipped with what seems to be composite armor on the hull front and front and sides of the turret. Its theoretical thickness against kinetic or shaped charges ammunition has not yet been revealed by the North Korean military and we can expect that it will not be revealed in the future. The last thing that can be noted about the composite armor on the turret is that it is fixed on the turret, as on the M1 Abrams. This means that the armor can not be removed after being hit by enemy warheads, like it can be on many modern tanks, such as the Merkava Siman IV or Leopard 2, in which the composite armor is placed in removable modules that can be substituted with new ones when damaged. This also means that the armor can not be simply substituted with more modern and effective composite modules. This situation is clearly visible after the parade of 27th July 2023, in which the M-2020s were shown with an additional protection kit above the composite armor.

The most notable feature of the M-2020 is the presence of an Active Protection System developed to autonomously prevent destruction or damage of the vehicle from missile threats.

Scheme showing the protection devices on the M-2020. Source: KCNA with highlights from the author

There are a total of 12 launcher tubes connected to the active protection system on the lower sides of the turret, six per side, grouped in four 3-launcher positions on the front and sides.

These systems are what seems to be a copy of the anti-missile subsystem of the Russian Afganit APS mounted on the T-14 Armata and on the T-15 Heavy Infantry Fighting Vehicle (HIFV).

The Afghanit Active Protection System mounted on a T-14 Armata. Source: defenceprocurementinternational.com

The Russian Afganit APS is composed of two subsystems, the first being a generic one consisting of small charges mounted on the roof of the turret, covering a 360° arc that shoots small fragmentation grenades against rockets and tank shells. The second is an anti-ATGM system consisting of 10 large fixed grenade launchers mounted (5 per side) on the lower part of the turret.

Some sources have rightly doubted that the Russian Federation provided the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with the technology to produce such a modern APS, which was officially tested by Russia only on 24th August 2023. It has therefore been speculated that the Koreans developed the APS of the M-2020 from the older Soviet Drozd that entered service in limited numbers in the late 1970s.

The most probable theory is that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had stolen blueprints and other sensitive documents on the APS from Russian military industries during one of their hacking attacks.

The Drozd Active Protection System mounted on a T-55. Source: static.tildacdn.com

On the M-2020, connected to the twelve APS tubes, are at least four radars, probably of the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) type. Two are mounted on the frontal composite armor and two on the sides. These are meant to detect incoming anti-tank missiles aimed at the vehicle. If an anti-tank missile (such as RPG or ATGM) is detected by the radars, the system automatically activates the APS that fires one grenade in the direction of the target, annihilating the threat. According to official North Korean sources, the system seems to be functional and has been tested.

 
Two frames from the official M-2020 Active Protection System’s test against a Type 68 (North Korean copy of the RPG-7) grenade. Sources: KCTV with highlights from the author

There are also two Laser Warning Receivers (LWR) on the turret sides. Their purpose is to detect laser beams from enemy rangefinders mounted on tanks or anti-tank weapons that are aiming at the vehicle and automatically activate the rear smoke grenades to hide the vehicle from the opposing optical systems. Interestingly enough, the LWR device placed on the left of the turret is positioned higher than the one on the right due to the presence of the ATGM launcher, which in firing position, would have covered part of the LWR detection area.

M-2020 Laser Warning Receiver positions. As clearly visible, the right-side one is higher than the one on the left of the tank. Source: KCTV with highlights from the author

The presence of an LWR, along with an MRS and a cross wind sensor are of interest from the point of view of technological development in North Korea. Assuming that such systems actually work and are not mere mock-ups, these are state-of-the-art devices that not all modern MBTs possess.

An M-2020 at the firing range, ready to shoot. Note that the APS radar is without the protective cover. Source: KCTV

As for the Laser Warning Receiver, already present in the latest versions of Ch’ŏnma and Songun, Western vehicles such as the Leopard 2 have only received it with the latest upgrades in the last decade. Other Western vehicles adopted it earlier, such as the M1 Abrams and the Italian B1 Centauro. As for the Muzzle Reference System, by now all Western MBTs have it, but not the Russian ones (with some modern exceptions, such as the T-90M and T-14), again underscoring a departure on the North Korean side from the Russian/Soviet tank influence.

Crosswind sensor and Laser Warning Receiver on a Ch’ŏnma-216 on parade in 2018. Similar, if not identical devices are mounted on the M-2020. Source: KCBC with highlights from the author

The crosswind sensor, on the other hand, is a device that had already appeared in the latest versions of Korean MBTs presented in 2002, increasing the accuracy of North Korean Fire-Control Systems (FCS). Such a system, also very common on Western MBTs, has instead appeared on Russian tanks only with the T-72B3 in 2010.

As all other military vehicles, the M-2020 is equipped with a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) defense system that protects the crew against enemy (or friendly) contamination.

The add-on armor on the turret roof of the M-2020. The mushroom-shaped cupola behind the add-on armor is probably the CBRN system. Source: KCNA with highlights from the author

Since its first appearance, the M-2020 received thick add-on armor over the turret roof. This is probably a cheap solution adopted by the North Korean developers against top-attack missiles, such as the FGM-148 Javelin or loitering ammunition. The first ones, becoming popular in Western media during the Ukrainian conflict, are difficult to counter with simple add-on armor, while the latter ones are probably useless against such thick protection due their limited warheads.

Last but not least, the M-2020 appears to have bolted on the side skirts with what looks like Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) blocks, or some other kind of Non-Explosive Reactive Armor (NERA) or applique armor.

Other ERA blocks are placed on the turret front on what could be nicknamed as the M-2020 Model 2023 (or Obr. 2023). A total of 8 pre-series vehicles paraded for the 70th Anniversary of the Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War on 27th July 2023 showed off the new protection kit. Some sources speculated that the ERA kit on the early M-2020 could be a copy of the Chinese FY-IV which provided protection against tandem warhead ammunition. In the M-2020 Model 2023, the ERA blocks on the side skirts heavily resemble the Russian 2S24 extensively adopted by Russian Armed Forces before the Ukrainian War in soft skinned boxes, then replaced with metal boxes. It can be spotted on various Russian tanks in Ukraine, such as the T-72B3M Obr. 2022 and T-80BVM Obr. 2022.

Several M-2020 Model 2023s parading through Kim Il-sung Square on 27th July 2023. The vehicles are showing-off new ERA blocks on the turret front and hull sides. Source: KCTV via Korea Now

The turret front’s ERA blocks are similar in dimension and disposition to the ones mounted in the mid-2010s on the Songun-915. Where the APS launcher tubes are present, in the lower side of the front arc, the ERA blocks are placed only to cover the composite armor, not interfering with the APS operation.

Explosive Reactive Armor disposition on the new M-2020 Model 2023. Source: KCTV via Korea Now with highlights from the author

The addition of ERA blocks to the outside of the side skirts does not affect the presence of ERA (or NERA or appliqué armor) in the skirt itself. In fact, North Korea has previously used double-stack ERA blocks on the Songun-915. The presence of a double row of ERA blocks would increase protection on the sides of the vehicle even after the first row has detonated, inhibiting the first threat.

Crew and Autoloader

The crew of the M-2020 consists of four crew members, namely commander, gunner, loader, and driver. What baffled Western analysts anyway is the presence of only three crew members during parades.

Three crew members in front of an M-2020 before a parade. Note the new helmets with displays instead of the usual Soviet-style padded helmets. Source: KCTV

The presence of three crew members could be explained because, during parades, only three of them, the commander, the loader, and the driver, can show themselves from the tank’s hatches. The gunner does not have his own hatch and is, during parades, not needed.

The gunner and commander’s optics are placed one in front of the other as, for example, on the C1 Ariete MBT. On the C1 Ariete, the gunner sits in front of the commander while the loader has his own seat and cupola on the other side of the gun breech, exactly as on the M-2020.

It is unclear if the tank has an autoloader. If the M-2020 has an autoloader as, for example, on Russian T-72 tanks, the commander would sit on one side of the breech, while the gunner would sit on the other side, and their optics would be on opposite sides of the turret roof.

Commander’s optic (red) and gunner’s optic (yellow) on C1 Ariete (top), M-2020 (middle), and T-72B3 (bottom). Sources: Esercito Italiano, KCNA and Getty Images with highlights from the author

The Starving Tiger

Communist North Korea is one of the most peculiar countries in the world, with an army to match. The country, often called the Hermit Kingdom, is currently subject to almost worldwide sanctions due to its ongoing nuclear program and nuclear bomb tests. This has largely deprived the country not only of the economic benefits of trade but also of many resources required for tank construction, most importantly foreign weapons, weapon systems, and minerals which the country cannot extract from its limited resources.

While North Korea has found ways of circumventing these sanctions and engaging in limited trade (including selling weapons to foreign countries), the country has an annual GDP of only US$35 billion (2022), more than 50 times smaller than that of South Korea (US$1665 billion in 2022). The GDP of North Korea is close to that of such war-torn countries as Malaysia (US$30.12 billion, 2022), El Salvador (US$32.5 billion, 2022), or Honduras (US$31 billion, 2022). In terms of GDP per capita, the situation is similar. At $1,700 per person (Purchasing Power Parity, 2015), the country is overtaken by such ‘powerhouses’ as Haiti ($1,800, 2017), Afghanistan ($2,000, 2017), and Ethiopia ($2,200, 2017).

Nonetheless, despite these worrying economic indicators, North Korea spends a massive 33.4% of its GDP (2022) on defense, which amounts to $11.7 billion. This is closer to more developed countries, such as Singapore ($11.7 billion, 2022), Turkey ($10.6 billion, 2022), Taiwan ($12.5 billion, 2022), Pakistan ($10.3 billion, 2022), and Quatar($15.4 billion, 2022). It must be noted that none of the countries listed in this comparison are capable of developing a brand new MBT able to compete with the most modern Russian and American tanks. North Korea is a massive weapons manufacturer, proving able to build thousands of MBTs, APCs, SPGs, and many other weapon types. They have also made many improvements and adaptations of foreign designs. While it is clear that the North Korean versions are definite improvements over the originals, the originals are usually half a century old. No serious institution, except, of course, the North Korean propaganda machine, can claim that the North Korean vehicles are superior or even comparable to the most modern vehicles from other countries.

However, it is clear from the current information that the M-2020 is a real design and a good part of its more advanced features are apparently functional, the agglomeration of such high-tech features on a single design coming from North Korea is suspicious. It is possible that the proof shown thus far by the North Koreans has been doctored, that not all systems are really functional or that, given their expensive nature, they are seriously low production and the M-2020 will serve more as a trophy project than a real component of the KPA, similar to the Russian T-14 Armata.

3D model of an M-2020 in a Korean propaganda video. Source: KCTV

Furthermore, the North Korean electronics industry is not in a position to produce the expensive and technologically complicated electronics systems (and their associated software) needed by modern MBTs. Even the local production of LCD screens involves acquiring many components and parts directly from China and then assembling them in North Korea, if not buying them whole from China and just stamping them with North Korean logos. Given all these factors, it is rather curious that the otherwise feeble North Korean economy and military industry could develop, design, and construct an MBT with comparable characteristics and systems as the most modern and powerful vehicles from the United States and Russia.

The Soviet Afghanit system which the New North Korean MBT is trying to emulate was based on decades of Soviet experience in the field starting from the late 1970s Drozd and going through the 1990s Arena. Similarly, the first American MBT to field APS protection is the M1A2C from 2015, which uses the Israeli Trophy system which entered production in 2017. Given that the USA, the largest economy in the world and the largest military spender in the world, did not develop its own APS system, it is extremely unlikely that the North Koreans were able to do so and emulate a highly advanced system such as Afghanit. While there is a chance that North Korea might have acquired this system from Russia, there is nothing to indicate that the Russians would be willing to sell this highly advanced system, let alone to a pariah state such as North Korea. However, this calculation may have been changed significantly by the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un meeting in person in September 2023 to discuss some sort of military and economic collaboration. Another plausible import source would be China, which also has locally developed hard-kill APS.

M-2020 3D model top view in the same propaganda video. Source: KCTV

Similar arguments can be made for the New North Korean MBT’s Remote Weapons Station, Advanced Infrared Camera, advanced composite armor, and main sights. It is highly unlikely that North Korea was able to develop and build these systems on its own. This leaves only two possible options: either these systems were acquired from abroad, most likely from China, which does seem improbable nonetheless, or that they are partly fakes meant to deceive its enemies.

The Lying Tiger

As in most nationalist-communist countries, propaganda plays a very important role in the ongoing functioning and perpetuation of the North Korean regime. It is spearheaded by the cult of personality for the current leader, Kim Jong-un, and for his forefathers, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, and of Korean exceptionalism. North Korean propaganda makes full use of the full censorship of information from the outside to paint all the rest of the world as a barbaric and monstrous place, from which the North Koreans are sheltered by the ruling Kim family and the North Korean state.

While North Korean propaganda plays an important role in perpetuating the North Korean regime internally through the vilification of the rest of the world, constant lying about the achievements of North Korea, and some outright fantastic claims (such that North Korea is the second happiest country in the world), its annual military parades are becoming more and more targeted to the outside, projecting North Korea’s power and dangerousness to its enemies.

A 3D view of the M-2020 from a Korean Central TV video. Source: KCTV

These military parades have become a nearly yearly occurrence under the new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. Furthermore, they are broadcast live through the Korean Central Television, one of the state-owned broadcasters in North Korea. Furthermore, the television channel is broadcast for free outside North Korea’s borders. This is how the world found out so quickly about the new North Korean MBT presented in the 2020 parade.

However, this has allowed the military parades to become more than just an internal show of strength and military power. They are now also a way for North Korea to publicly broadcast its capabilities and intimidate any potential enemies.

What must be remembered at all times is that a military parade is not an accurate representation of the military power of a country nor of the capabilities of the vehicles presented. It is a show meant to present the army, its units, and its equipment in the best and most impressive light. The equipment presented does not have to be in use, fully developed, or even real to appear on a parade.

North Korea has a long history of being accused of presenting fake weapons on its parades. In 2012, a team of German military experts claimed that the North Korean KN-08 ICBMs presented at a parade in Pyongyang were just mock-ups. They also mentioned that the Musudan and Nodong missiles presented in a 2010 parade were just mock-ups and not the real thing.

A M-2020 in high speed maneuvers in the same video of the firing tests. Note the absence of the polymer side skirt and the ATGM launcher elevated. Source: KCTV

Similar accusations emerged in 2017 from former military intelligence officer Michael Pregend, who claimed the North Korean equipment presented during a parade that year was unfit for combat, highlighting the AK-47 rifles with attached grenade launchers.

However, the fact of the matter is that it can not be proven either way. There is no way for actual military researchers to get access to North Korean technology and the North Koreans refuse to publicly release any information on their equipment. With parades and carefully crafted material distributed through official channels being the only way to get a look at the newest North Korean military technology, it must be kept in mind that there is no guarantee that the systems shown are truly operational or fully developed or that they have all the capabilities that are presented. The information that can be gleaned is superficial, with most details that are crucial to understanding the capabilities of a modern weapon system being either inaccessible or obscured.

Appearances

Although the M-2020 is a modern main battle tank with only ten (9 in parade, 1 exposed) have been observed until now (May 2024), it has appeared many times in the nearly three years since the day of its first public appearance.

After the 75th Anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party of Korea on 10th October 2020, it was presented to world customers on October 2021 during P’yŏngyang’s military Expo known as Self-Defense 2021 together with many other weapons systems developed in the last years by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, such as the 300 mm KN-09 multiple rocket launcher system and KN-23 and KN-24 tactical ballistic missiles.

During this military exhibition, the M-2020 was given a place of honor on the stage where Marshal Kim Jong-un gave speeches.

The M-2020 exhibited at the Self-Defense 2021 military expo in P’yŏngyang. In the background there are KN-23 (green missiles) and KN-24 (black missiles with white tips) on various transporter erector launchers. Source: News 1

The third occasion during which Western observers spotted the M-2020 was during a parade for the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea on 15th January 2021, when a total of eight tanks paraded through Kim Il-sung Square.

Eight M-2020s on parade for the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea on 15th January 2021. Source: KCNA

On 25th April 2022, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un organized a parade for the 90th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Korean People’s Army. Others have pointed out that it was also to celebrate the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, founder of the nation. At the parade, 8 pre-series M-2020 appeared for the fourth official time.

Externally, they were unmodified. It is possible that some of the expected development and modifications have been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and its financial impact, in spite of the regime’s best efforts to prevent the virus entering the country and stopping its spread. Similarly, development and modifications may have been affected by the main focus being on missile tests over the last two years. In the period of January to April 2022 alone, North Korea has launched 20 missiles.

M-2020 crews entering their tanks in Sungri Street shortly before the parade for the 90th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Korean People’s Army on 25th April 2022. Source: KCTV

However, they had a new three tone light green, dark green, and khaki spot camouflage, more suitable for the North Korean terrain than the original tan camouflage. Hwasŏng-17 missiles, already seen in the 2020 parade and which recently completed a successful launch test on 24th March 2022, were also at the parade.

For over a year, between May 2022 and July 2023, the M-2020s disappeared from the radars only to appear on three different occasions in late July 2023.

On 26th July 2023, Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu arrived together with a Russian military delegation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. According to North Korean and Russian sources, the visit was made to improve diplomatic relations between the two nations, while Western sources suggested it was an excuse to distance Shoigu from Moscow after the Wagner Group rebellion on 23-24th June 2023 and to agree on ammunition supplies from North Korea to support the conflict in Ukraine.

During his short presence in Korea, Sergei Shoigu visited the new military expo in P’yŏngyang, Self-Defense 2023, accompanied by Kim Jong-un himself. In one of the images of the visit, between many multiple rocket launcher systems, tactical ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles, an example of M-2020 Model 2023 can be spotted in the background.

Kim Jong-un and Sergei Shoigu surrounded by Russian delegates and interpreters during the visit at the Self-Defense 2023 expo on 27th July 2023. In the background, the M-2020 Model 2023 and the Hwasŏng-18 ICBM. Source: KCNA

On the same day, an official video of the M-2020’s firing tests and active protection system tests were made public by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). The M-2020 was successfully tested in the Machine Plant managed by Ho Chol-yong (more simply known as Kusong Production Plant) Proving Ground as satellite images had suggested.

The M-2020 at the Kusong Tank Plant Proving Ground during the firing test video. Source: KCTV with highlights from the author
Satellite image of the Kusong Tank Plant Proving Ground to confirm the previous claims. Source: Google Maps with highlights from the author

On the evening of 27th July 2023, Kim Jong-un, together with the Russian and Chinese delegations (the latter arrived after the military expo visit) attended the parade in commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War. During the parade, eight M-2020 Model 2023 opened the column of armored vehicles. It was the first official appearance of the Model 2023 to the rest of the world.

The M-2020 Model 2023 in Sungri Street before the 70th Anniversary of the Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War’s parade on 27th July 2023. Source: KCTV via Yonhap News Agency

On 14th March 2024, the KCNA published an article on its official website, the day before, Marshal Kim Jong-un, Pak Jong-chon, Secretary of the Central Committee of the WPK, Kang Sun-nam, Minister of National Defence of the DPRK, Ri Yong-gil, Chief of the General Staff of the KPA oversaw a training session of the best crew members of the 105th Armored Division ‘Seoul’, the best trained and equipped division of the Korean People’s Army Ground Forces.

Seven of the eight M-2020 Model 2023s which took part in the training at the Geombullang Training Area on 13th March 2024. Source: KCNA

A total of eight M-2020 Or. 2023s were deployed probably at the Geombullang Training Area for the first time and cooperated with another unit equipped with Ch’ŏnma-216. After the training, Kim Jong-un spent some time with the crews and also took a short drive on the new MBT. Returning the tank to its crew, Kim Jong-un then took a commemorative image with the North Korean tank crews which participated in the training.

M-2020 Obr. 2023s and Ch’ŏnma-216s flown over by US-made MD-500 helicopters during the 13th March training. Source: KCNA

This event removes any doubt about the credibility of the vehicle, proving that it is not a mock-up or a fake. Obviously this training, which showed only a total of 8 vehicles of this model, does not confirm the beginning of its mass production, but only the transition from a tank seen only in parades to a tank that actually entered service in the KPA.

Marshall Kim Jong-un driving an M-2020 Obr. 2023 after the training exercise. Note the absence of ATGMs in the launcher. Source: KCNA
M-2020 Appearances
Date Occasion Note
10th October 2020 75th Anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party of Korea 9 vehicles in 3-tone desert camouflage
21st October 2021 Self-Defense 2021 military expo 1 vehicle
15th January 2021 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea 8 vehicles in 3-tone desert camouflage
25th April 2022 90th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Korean People’s Army 8 vehicles in 3-tone continental camouflage
27th July 2023 Sergei Shoigu visit/70th Anniversary of the Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War 8 M-2020 Obr. 2023
13th March 2024 105th Armored Division ‘Seoul’ Training 8 M-2020 Obr. 2023

Production and Assembly

As claimed by the North Korean defectors, the M-2020 prototype was tested at an imprecise Tank Research Center in North Korea, probably the Kusong Tank Plant, known in North Korea as the “Machine Plant Managed by Ho Chol-yong” in the Kusong province.

The M-2020 pre-series was also assembled at the Kusong Tank Plant, the only MBT production plant in Korea and one of the largest factories of the country.

The new production hall of the Kusong Tank Plant under construction in 2022 together with three other small buildings on the bottom of the image. Source: Google Maps
A June 2023 image of the same area. Apart from the large production hall, the three smaller buildings were completed. Source: earthexplorer.usgs.gov

In the past years, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had increased its production capabilities of tracked armored fighting vehicles and Transporter Erector Launchers (TELs), the vehicles that transport and launch missiles.

In order not to slow down the production of other tracked armored vehicles assembled at the Kusong Tank Plant, construction of a new large production hall and at least four smaller buildings began in late 2020. The other buildings near the bigger production hall were probably used to store and hide raw materials, semi-finished parts (such as engines, main guns, etc.) awaiting for assembly, and finished vehicles from spy satellites.

The Kusong Tank Plant’s dimensions with the new buildings completed as of June 2023. What seems to be the new M-2020 production hall is numbered 1, with two smaller buildings on its left probably to store semi-finished parts from other production plants and finished vehicles. Source: earthexplorer.usgs.gov with highlights from the author

Due to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, construction of the plant was halted, just like production of the M-2020. However, in June 2023, satellite images showed that the construction of the production hall and other buildings was finished and probably the M-2020 mass production was finally started.

Kusong Tank Plant (blue) and its proving ground (red) where the M-2020 has spotted in the past years. Source: earthexplorer.usgs.gov with highlights from the author

Could North Korean Tanks Finally Confront their South Korean Counterparts?

The M-2020 is surely a great improvement to the KPA’s armor capabilities that were totally outdated before their arrival.

In theory, the M-2020 totally outmatches the M48A3K, M48A5K1, and its sub-variants still in service in the ROKA. It is probably roughly comparable to the K1 produced by South Korea from the Chrysler XM1 prototype, but it probably still falls short to the most modern variants of the K1: the K1A1, K1A2, and K1E1.

A K2 ‘Black Panther’ (left) with its suspensions lowered and an M48A5K of the Republic Of Korea Army. Source: reddit.com u/rokarmedforces

The M-2020 is inferior to the K2 ‘Black Panther’ Main Battle Tank which entered service in 2014 due to the fact that the K2 is now considered to be one of the most advanced tanks in service anywhere in the world.

In general, these comparisons are valuable on paper, but as the Russian invasion of Ukraine (2022-present) has suggested, on the battlefield, nothing works as planned.

Roughly speaking, South Korea has in service 600 M48s in its various sub variants, 33 T-80Us and 2 T-80UKs received from Russia as a part of payment for a debt created during the Soviet era, 1,500 K1s in its various upgrades, and 206 K2s (plus 204 that are planned to be delivered in two different batches between 2023 to 2028). North Korea has 10 M-2020s confirmed by photographic evidence in service and it is unlikely that they would match South Korean numbers of modern tanks in a short period. This would force the KPA to rely on a fleet of less modern tanks in case of war against South Korea.

Despite its limited production, the integrated laser rangefinder, enhanced night vision optics, fire-control system, and stabilized gun would sensibly increase the anti-tank performance of the M-2020 that is capable of engaging targets day and night, even moving at low speeds. These capabilities were previously only limited or not even encountered on older North Korean tanks.

The modern composite armor, Explosive Reactive Armor, Active Protection System, and Laser Warning Receivers would increase the durability of the crew members permitting to adequately respond to threats on the battlefield.

Conclusion

As with all new North Korean vehicles, it was immediately assumed that the vehicle was a fake meant to arouse astonishment and confuse Western analysts and armies. According to some, this is actually an older Korean tank modified to fit new tracks and a seventh wheel in the running gear, but with a dummy superstructure.

Others claim it really is a vehicle of a new conception, but with the more advanced systems being fakes, either to deceive or to act as stand-ins until the real things are developed, like the remote weapon turret with a grenade launcher, the APS and its radars. In fact, these systems would be an almost unbelievable upgrade for North Korea, which has never showcased anything like this before.

With the entry into service in 2014 of the South Korean K2 Black Panther, North Korea also had to present a new vehicle that would be able to cope with the new South Korean MBT.

The vehicle presented by Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea, seems like a very modern and technologically advanced vehicle. If Western analysts are not mistaken, it will be able to effectively confront, in a hypothetical conflict against NATO nations, the most modern Western vehicles.

Its profile is completely different from previous North Korean vehicles, showing that even North Korea, perhaps with the help of the People’s Republic of China, is able to develop and build a modern MBT. However, it must be considered that, no matter how advanced the vehicle may be, North Korea will never be able to produce enough of them to be a threat to world security. The real threat from North Korea comes from its nuclear weapons and its vast conventional arsenal of artillery and missiles. The new tanks will be used as a deterrent against a possible South Korean attack.

A detail not to be underestimated is that the nine models presented on 10th October 2020 are probably pre-series models and that, in the coming years, production vehicles should be expected if this vehicle is really meant to see service. However, as of September 2023, no more than 9 vehicles have ever been spotted at any one time.

M-2020 number 148, the one exhibited at the Self-Defense 2021 expo in two-tone desert camouflage. Illustration made by by Ardhya ‘Vesp’ Anargha.
M-2020 appeared in a parade in P’yŏngyang on 25th April 2022 with new three tone camouflage. Illustration made by by Ardhya ‘Vesp’ Anargha.
The M-2020 Model 2023 with the new armor package and new three tone camouflage. Illustration made by by Ardhya ‘Vesp’ Anargha.

Sources

Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans – The Armed Forces of North Korea: On the Path of Songun

topwar.ru

armyrecognition.com

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8dZl9f3faY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MupWgfJWqrA

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanctions_against_North_Korea#Evasion_of_sanctions

https://tradingeconomics.com/north-korea/gdp#:~:text=GDP%20in%20North%20Korea%20averaged,statistics%2C%20economic%20calendar%20and%20news.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-military-analysis-idUSKCN1VW03C

https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Data%20for%20all%20countries%20from%201988%E2%80%932018%20in%20constant%20%282017%29%20USD%20%28pdf%29.pdf

https://www.popsci.com/china-has-fleet-new-armor-vehicles/

https://www.northkoreatech.org/2018/01/13/a-look-inside-the-potonggang-electronics-factory/

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/9/north-korea-to-show-strength-and-defiance-with-military-parade

https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/02/us-inspector-general-acknowledges-iran-backed-militias-obtained-abrams-tanks.php

https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/07/badr-organization-fighters-pose-with-us-m1-abrams-tank.php

http://kcna.kp/en

4 replies on “M-2020”

People underestimate the North Korean industry. They’re quick to call everything propaganda, while they themselves are parroting everything they’re told by social media and their government.
The truth of the matter is that North Korea has very close ties with multiple military “superpowers” that are glad to work with them.
North Koreans don’t need to reinvent the wheel, China, Russia, Iran, etc. have done it for them.

When half your GDP goes to your military, it doesn’t take long for you to sprint through nearly half a century of technological advancements with the help of more advanced nations.

There’s countries with far smaller arms industries that have been built in record time, simply by working with foreigners and buying technology transfers.
Turkey went from building cheap fridges to advanced drones, munitions, helicopters, missiles and tanks within less than 25 years. Hungary is currently on their way to manufacture the most modern IFV (Lynx) and active protection system (Strikeshield) on the planet when just 2 years prior they weren’t even making tractors… how? Simple, they paid a company to help them do it.
The North Koreans have been doing this for over 50 years.
You can laugh at their miserable cities and dystopian society all you want, I’ll join you even, but their weapons are very, very real, and there’s nothing surprising about it.

In this context the ‘I’ is pronounced as a ‘J’. Hence you have the ‘IS’ tank series, ‘IS-3’ for example.

– TE Staff

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