When we speak of Korea, the first thing that comes to our mind is a country which is the source of cutting edge electronic gadgets. But that’s south Korea and in this article, we are going to discuss its infamous northern neighbour, whose leader makes global headlines with every statement of his. Today we will discuss the most powerful weapons that are there in the north Korean arsenal. It may at first seem like a joke, but the North Korean military is not something to be ignored, no matter what century their equipment may be from.
The Korean peninsula is divided into the North and South Korean parts, which are separated by a 250 km long, 4 km wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) running along the entire length of their border, which is basically a ceasefire line demarcated using the territorial holdings at the end of the Korean War in 1953. At 120,000 km² in area, the Northern part is bigger than the Southern part. Although the Korean Peninsula may look tiny, it has an 8400 km long coastline out of which 2500 km is North Korean and the remaining 5900 km is South Korean.
Their military has the advantage of numbers over their southern neighbour. North Korea has thousands of artillery guns, anti-aircraft guns, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and not to forget a million strong army. Although their equipment is outdated and won’t win them any wars, they have the biggest advantage of being able to inflict massive damage on South Korea’s main population centres with their rocket and artillery strikes even though they may end up losing the war. This is because the South is a small area of 100,000 km² and their capital is less than 60 km from the DMZ. The North Korean capital, Pyongyang is immune to artillery attacks by the south as it is around 140 km from the DMZ. So, the South Korean military will have to use long-range missiles and airstrikes to strike the northern capital.
With the acquisition of nuclear weapons, the scenario has changed and North Korea can openly issue warnings to other countries not to interfere in the affairs of their country. So what will happen in the case of an actual confrontation with their neighbour, or their neighbour’s powerful ally from across the Pacific? North Korea will bring every weapon in their arsenal to the table. In this article, we at Defencyclopedia will discuss the Top 10 weapons of the North Korean military that are likely to be used in a future conflict because of their power and usefulness.
10. Koksan M-1989 170 mm Self-Propelled Howitzer
Sometimes the deadliest weapons need not be technologically advanced. Brute strength can be very dangerous and the lack of electronics makes them resistant to jamming and electromagnetic pulses, allowing them to stay operational in even the most jamming intense battlefields. The Koksan 170 mm heavy artillery gun, which is mounted on a modified Chinese Type-59 chassis is an example of such a system. This self-propelled gun has an open turret and a lengthened chassis allowing 12 rounds of ammunition to be carried on board. The crew and additional rounds are carried in a separate truck which accompanies each gun.
Owing to lack of automation and its high calibre, it has a very slow rate of fire of around 2 rounds per 5 minutes. So it is not ideal for shoot and scoot missions and incapable of performing something like MRSI (Multiple Rounds Simultaneous Impact). Nevertheless, this weapon can inflict massive damage if used in the right way, since it has a maximum range of 60 km and can hit the South Korean capital from the DMZ itself. The weapon has been exported to Iran and saw usage during the Iran-Iraq wars.
9. Modified SA-13 Surface to Air Missile | Zsu-23-4 Anti-Aircraft Gun
A mobile surface to air missile system with multiple short-range missiles is very vital for the protection of ground-based assets and to complement longer ranges SAM systems. The original Russian SA-13 system had 4 IR-guided SAMs mounted on an MT-LB multi-purpose tracked vehicle, but the upgraded North Korean version features 8 smaller and newer missiles, literally doubling the payload. This system is light, amphibious and can be deployed along with armoured columns to protect them from aerial attacks.
Anti-aircraft guns may be considered obsolete by some western militaries but they form a vital air defence component of most Asian militaries. North Korea has almost 10,000 anti-aircraft guns of different types, but the most capable among them is the Zsu-23-4 Schilika tracked anti-aircraft gun system. The 4-barreled 23 mm gun is directed by a radar and it can fire at a rate of 4000 rounds per minute, making it a deadly weapon for engaging low-flying targets. Its mobility allows it to form a part of invading armoured columns and it can also be used as a stationary platform in the extensive North Korean Integrated Air Defence System (IADS).
8. Nongo-class missile boat
The North Korean Navy has no major operational surface warships and must make do with their fleet of submarines and missile boats in case of a conflict. The Nongo-class is a fast, compact and inexpensive missile boat which packs a punch with its missile armament. Its design is said to be that of the surface effect ship (SES) type, which is neither a pure hovercraft nor a conventional ship. Displacing around 200 tons, these ships can reach speeds of up to 50 kts (92 km/hr), which makes them very difficult to target using submarines.
Its design is optimized for radar cross section reduction and it has a low silhouette, making it very tough to detect with regular radar systems. For its size, it packs a powerful weapons load, which is enough to perform shoot and scoot missions or swarm attacks on a superior naval fleet. It has a 76 mm main gun, 4 x Kh-35 anti-ship missiles with a range of 120+ km and a 30 mm Gatling gun. Another version of the same class which is shown in the pictures here has a 30 mm Gatling gun in place of the 76 mm. At present only 6 such missile boats are said to be operational and it is possible that they may be mass produced because these missile boats are effective only when they are in significant numbers.
7. MiG-29S ‘Fulcrum’
This is the most advanced fighter jet in the North Korean Air Force, officially the Korean People’s Air Force (KPAF), which is otherwise made up of a bunch of outdated aircraft. They received a batch of 17 MiG-29s from the erstwhile USSR from 1988, which perform the primary air defence role. They are supplemented by a 200 odd fleet of MiG-21/23 fighters, which stand no chance against the modern fighter fleets of their rivals. The MiG-29 is a twin-engine, 4th generation fighter jet which has been touted as an excellent dogfighter.
It features a decent weapons load, with 6 underwing hardpoints to carry air to air missiles and a centerline hardpoint for an external fuel tank. The variant of the MiG-29 exported to North Korea can carry out only air defence roles and they lack a significant ground attack capability. These MiG-29s have been spotted with R-60 and R-27 air to air missiles, which are the only modern AAM types in the arsenal of the KPAF. Their entire fleet of MiG-29s is operated by the 55th Kumsong Guard Air Regiment, which is based near Pyongyang.
There are a lot of reports from western media sources which suggest that the KPAF is completely useless and that their pilots receive just a few hours of flight time every year. But frontline MiG-29s and their pilots are kept in very good condition to handle the local air threats which they might face. One of the main roles of the MiG-29 is to perform the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duty, where fighter aircraft are kept in high readiness to intercept aerial threats. The quality of training, availability of jets and the weapons used may not be the best in class, but they will be enough to provide some sort of opposition in a conflict. But in an era of network-centric warfare with AWACS guiding fighter jets on missions and providing early warning, the KPAF may find it difficult to get even a single successful shot at their rivals in a conflict and their best hope for defending their airspace lies in their ground-based air defence systems.
6. KN-09 MLRS
This is one of the most recently unveiled weapons of the North Korean military and something that should be feared by anyone within 200 km of it. The KN-09 is a multiple launch rocket system which has 8 x 300 mm caliber rockets mounted on a 6×6 China-made truck. It is said to be in the same class as the Russian-made Smerch MLRS. The KN-9 has a more advanced reloading system where each individual tube need not be reloaded and each empty 4-tube pod mounted on the truck can be replaced with a loaded one, thereby cutting down significantly on reloading times. The development and production of this weapons system is a sign that North Korea is beginning to modernize its military and not depending on outdated hardware anymore.
Its test firings were monitored and tracked by South Korean radars and they have confirmed its 200 km range. The threat posed by the KN-09 is on account of its long range, which allows North Korea to comfortably target the South Korean capital and its surrounding regions from well inside the North Korean borders. Such a powerful standoff system, if produced in large numbers and deployed strategically, will pose a major threat and be a game changer in the case of a war.
5. Pokpung-Ho III MBT
Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) form an important part of the KPA’s offensive and defensive strategies. Armoured vehicles, especially tanks, form the spearhead of any ground offensive and the Pokpung-Ho is the tip of the North Korean spear. For a force which operates thousands of outdated and obsolete tanks, the Pokpung-Ho is basically cutting edge. Developed in the 1990’s, it incorporates design features and equipment from several Soviet-era tanks along with local improvements to make it powerful enough to face the advanced South Korean tanks. The main design is based on the T-62 and T-72 tanks, and it features the standard 125 mm smoothbore gun which is characteristic of these Russian tanks.
AT 44 tons, the Pokpung-Ho is not a heavy tank and falls in the same weight class as the T-72. This coupled with a powerful engine and gun makes it a formidable opponent in the mountainous terrain of Korea. It is well protected as well, with a sloped glacis plate, appliqué armour and ERA (Explosive Reactive Armour). Unlike the older tanks in their army, this one has significant night-fighting capabilities having been equipped with an Infrared sensor, laser rangefinder and searchlight. The latest version of this tank is bristling with weapons and at a military parade, it was seen equipped with a mount for 2 short range SAMs and 2 anti-tank missiles on either side of the turret. The 14.5 mm machine gun for the commander has been replaced by a twin barrelled 30 mm automatic grenade launcher and the coaxial 7.62 mm machine gun is retained.
4. Nodong Medium Range Ballistic Missile
For North Korea, medium range ballistic missiles are the most effective way to hit targets in the south, which are beyond the range of their artillery. The Nodong is basically a modified and upscaled Scud missile, having a range of 1500 km. It is said to be very accurate and has a CEP (Circular Error Probability) of less than 2 km. The missile is very difficult to intercept using South Korean Patriot air defense systems as the Nodong can be made to fly at an altitude above the engagement envelope of the Patriot, just by compromising the range. This is a good tradeoff for North Korea as even with the shortened range, the can cover the whole of South Korea without difficulty. To counter this missile, the US has deployed their THAAD missile defense system in South Korea.
This liquid-fueled missile can carry a 1000 kg conventional warhead or a nuclear warhead. North Korea is estimated to have over 300 of these missiles, but as is the usual case, nothing is confirmed and the numbers in their possession can be significantly higher. It is also not easy to detect and destroy these road-mobile launchers as was seen in the Gulf War, where the Iraqi scud launchers were giving the US forces a hard time. The missile has had reasonable success in the export market, with Pakistan purchasing and using this missile’s technology to develop their Ghauri-I and Iran using it to develop their Shabab-3.
3. KN-06 Pongae-5 Surface to Air Missile
This is another recently developed and weapons system of the North Korean military and it is a mile ahead of the other outdated SAM systems in their arsenal. The KN-06 is a long range surface to air missile which was first test fired in 2011. Externally it looks similar to the Russian S300 air defense system, but the missiles are said to be shorter than those of the S300, but at the same time physically larger. It is a distinct possibility that Russian or Chinese assistance was sought to assist directly or indirectly in the development of such a missile system. The range of the KN-06 is said to be in excess of 150 km, making this a potent area defence system.
The missiles are mounted on a 6×6 Kamaz truck, with 2-3 missile tubes on each such transporter erector launcher (TEL). This system has been displayed during North Korean military parades along with a command truck, phased array search and missile guidance radar and multiple launch trucks. The presence of such advanced air defence systems in the North Korean military make them a country which would be very tough to invade without sustaining significant casualties. With the KN-06, they also possess a powerful air defence system, which if deployed in the right places in the right quantity could create a lot of problems for their southern neighbour in case of a conflict.
2. Sinpo-class submarine with Pukkuksong-1 SLBM
The North Korean programme to build a ballistic missile carrying submarine was a well-kept secret until a few years ago when the regime itself started releasing information and publicizing its tests and capabilities. The Sinpo-class is the first ballistic missile submarine (SSB) of the North Korean Navy and has the ability to fire a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile. At just around 1600 tons when submerged, it is the smallest such submarine of its type in service anywhere and it is most likely intended as a test platform. The next submarines of the class could be bigger and carry more than 1 ballistic missile, thereby giving it longer range and better strike capabilities. Since it lacks an AIP system, its endurance is limited to less than a month, but being a diesel-electric submarine, it can just stay dead in the water by turning off all its machinery and function as a static underwater missile launcher.
The Pukkuksong is a solid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) which is designed to be fired from the Sinpo class submarine. A single missile is fitted in the sail of the submarine and launched using compressed air. It is speculated to have a range of anywhere between 500-2500 km and there is no confirmation as no official information has been released. The missile has had a lot of failed tests which delayed its induction, but a successful test in 2016 confirmed the missile’s capabilities and made the US and South Korean militaries look at the North Korean nuke delivery platforms with greater seriousness.
1. KN-08 Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile
The North Korean dream has always been to develop a weapons system capable of targeting the USA, and with the KN-08, they may have finally gained that capability. Although this missile is not yet operational, it will propel North Korea into an elite group of nations along with USA, Russia, China, UK, France and India with ICBM technology, once it enters service. Until now, only mockups have been displayed and it is not even confirmed whether it will be solid or liquid fueled. It has been showcased in parades with a transporter erector launcher (TEL) modified from a conventional lumber truck.
There are unconfirmed reports that the missile has a range anywhere between 8000-10,000 km. The reason why this missile takes the number 1 spot is that it is the only North Korean missile system which can actually touch the US and inflict any sort of damage upon their mainland in the near future. It is possible that a submarine launched variant will be developed once land based version enters service sometime around 2020.
It has been long thought that North Korea is not capable of any sort of innovation or development of military technology. But in this article, we have had a look at several indigenously developed weapons systems which pack a serious punch. Although they have budgetary and technological limitations, the North Korean military is a significantly formidable one for anyone trying to take them on and it is guaranteed that even though the North Korean military would lose in an extended conflict, they can inflict extensive damage on South Korea, which would turn into a lose-lose situation for both sides.
Keeping this in mind, it would be unwise to provoke them into starting any conflict as they are not as toothless as portrayed by the mainstream media. Thus the Korean peninsula will stay in a perpetual arms race, with the South acquiring cutting-edge military hardware and the North playing catch up.
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