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Korean People's Army - Equipment Introduction

Since the Korean War, armor support was improved with the addition of the T-54 medium tank and the JS-2/3 heavy tank. This improvement had been complemented by an increase in the number of SU-76 self-propelled assault guns. The inclusion of this relatively modern equipment provides the NKA with a potent striking force for rapid exploitation."

Beginning in the late 1970s, North Korea began a major reorganization and modernization of its ground forces. North Korea began to produce a modified version of the 115mm gunned T-62 tank, which was the Soviet army's main battle tank in the 1960s. Based on general trends and photography of armed forces parades, it is clear that North Korea has made considerable modifications to the basic Soviet and Chinese designs in its own production.

In the 1980s, in order to make the army more mobile and mechanized, there was a steady influx of new tanks, self propelled artillery, armored personnel carriers (APCs), and trucks. The ground forces seldom retire old models of weapons and tend to maintain a large equipment stock, keeping old models along with upgraded ones in the active force or in reserve. The army remains largely an infantry force, although a decade-long modernization program has significantly improved the mobility and firepower of its active forces.

Between 1980 and 1992, North Korea reorganized, reequipped, and forward deployed the majority of its ground forces. The army places great emphasis on special operations and has one of the largest special operations forces in the world--tailored to meet the distinct requirements of Korean terrain. Between 1984 and 1992, the army added about 1,000 tanks, over 2,500 APC/infantry fighting vehicles (IFV), and about 6,000 artillery tubes or rocket launchers. In 1992 North Korea had about twice the advantage in numbers of tanks and artillery, and a 1.5-to-1 advantage in personnel over its potential adversaries, the United States-Republic of Korea defenses to the south. Over 60 percent of the army was located within 100 kilometers of the DMZ in mid 1993.

Although the majority of units remain "straight-leg" infantry forces, that is, lacking significant motorized or mechanized transport, the army contains a significant number of well equipped mechanized units, with about 2,500 APCs. These mobile forces are equipped with a mix of older Soviet-made APCs, some Chinese-made APCs, and some indigenously produced APCs, such as the M-1985.

As of 1996 the main equipment of the North Korean ground forces included over 3,800 tanks including 2,750 T-54/55/59s, 800 new model T-62 and light tanks, and about 250 outdated T-34s. It was also equipped with more than 2,800 armored vehicles consisting of BTR series and Type M1973. Its artillery forces possessed over 8,300 of the 76.2 mm, 100 mm, 122 mm, 130 mm, 152 mm, and 170 mm howitzers and guns, over 2,700 of the 107 mm, 122 mm, 132 mm, 240 mm multiple rocket launchers, and more than 12,500 anti-aircraft guns.

Probably because of its initial Soviet tutelage and the limited ground attack capability of the air force, great emphasis is placed on using massive artillery firepower. North Korean ordnance factories produce a variety of self-propelled guns, howitzers, and gun-howitzers. In the 1980s, North Korea produced a significant amount of self-propelled artillery, mating towed artillery tubes with chassis already in the inventory. North Korean strategic thought also seems to be based on the primacy of developing an offensive capability, reflecting an appreciation for firepower probably dating to the Korean War. Further, P'yongyang is willing to invest the time and effort necessary for effective defense of its ground forces from air attack and artillery fire.

With the exception of the 170mm M-1978 Koksan gun first noted in a parade in 1985, a new turreted self-propelled gun observed in a 1992 parade, and perhaps a few other systems, most artillery was developed from older Soviet and Chinese designs. All incorporate proven technologies or components.

North Korea continues to produce a range of Soviet antitank guns, most of them dating from 1940s and 1950s designs, and ranging in size from 57mm through 100mm. Infantry units also are armed with Soviet bloc-derived equipment.

The North Korean army was not uniformly successful in its 1980s efforts to modernize its forces in support of a high-speed offensive strategy; more needs to be done to update the army's mobility, artillery, and air defense elements. North Korea has increased its tank fleet, but incomplete information suggests that it remains based largely on dated Soviet technology with retrofitted indigenous improvements. Although the quality and quantity of mobile anti-aircraft gun systems remains unknown, there is no indication of any mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems other than man-portable systems such as the SA-7 and SA-14 or SA-16 (based on parade photographs) entering the inventory to augment North Korea's static air defense umbrella. Lack of SAM systems could be a major deficiency in the army's tactical air defense capability during mobile offensive operations. However, in artillery systems the army appears to have made the most of its limited technological base. It has increased the artillery force while maintaining relative quantitative and range superiorities over its potential southern adversary and improving force mobility. By the early 1990s the chances that North Korea will further modernize its forces appear limited. The technological level of P'yongyang's industrial base appears to ensure that, with the possible exception of narrow areas of special interest, built-in obsolescence will be unavoidable, regardless of how undesirable.

Counting the Beans

Detailed listings of the equipment holdings of the Korean People's Army [KPA] are rather scarce in the unclassified literature. This surely reflects some combination of deficiencies in Western intelligence concerning the North Korean military, inefficiencies in the seepage of classified intelligence appreciations into the open literature, as well as disinterest on the part of open-source analysts in doing detailed beancounts, which is understandable given the paucity of data and limited audience for such exercises.

The annual The Military Balance by the International Institute of Strategic Studies as well as the annual The World Defense Almanac by the publishers of Military Technology provide the most readily available sources, which have been used here. A close reading of these invaluable references, however, makes it clear that their listings of equipment types leaves something to be desired. In particular, it is evident that there was a major re-evaluation of KPA equipment holdings at some point between 1985 and 1995, although it is beyond the scope of this present effort to reverse engineer the timing or the source of this re-evaluation. A variety of equipment types reported in 1985 are absent by 1995, and many of the equipment types listed as present in 1995 were absent in 1985. Most notably, open sources are entirely ignorant of KPA self-propelled artillery holdings in 1985, though by 1995 such equipment is reported in abundance. Additionally, artillery categories that were reported in 1985 to consist of Chinese or Soviet equipment have by 1995 been largely transformed into holdings of locally developed hardware. Consequently it would appear that the most significant changes between 1985 and 1995 were in the Western appreciation of KPA forces than in the forces themselves, a conclusion underscored by the general stability of the KPA inventory between 1995 and 1999.

Counting the beans is further complicated by divergences among contemporary sources, notably between The Military Balance and the presumably authoritative May 1997 Marine Corps Intelligence Activity NORTH KOREA COUNTRY HANDBOOK [5.5mb PDF -- download for viewing !!]. These differences are most striking in the realm of self-propelled artillery, where there is almost complete disagreement between the two sources as to the types and nommenclature of KPA holdings. Only slightly less troubling divergences are notable for towed artillery and artillery rocket systems.

This resource provides links to profiles of reasonably well attested systems, while also listing those systems mentioned in secondary sources such as The Military Balance for which no additional information is available. Exceptionally, a few elderly systems such as the M-1937 ML-20 are not profiled, given the paucity of available information, though the fact of the existence of these museum pieces is well-attested.

Total medium and light tanks 3,600 3,800
T-54/55/59 +2,200
T-62 +600
T-34 n.a.
APCs 2,500 2,270
Other light tanks (PT-76/China's T-62/63 and North Korea's M-1985) n.a.
Artillery 11,200
Self-propelled +5,500
Towed +3,000
Multiple rocket launchers 2,400
60-160mm +9,000

n.a.--not available.
{NOTE: Changes between 1992 and 1999 reflect both actual changes in the composition of KPA forces, as well as improved intelligence estimates of these forces.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:37:34 ZULU