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North Korea Keeps A Lot Of Exotic Artillery

April 12, 2020

The ML-20 howitzer. Via Wikimedia Commons.

March saw a surprising tempo of North Korean military exercises attended by a watchful Kim Jong Un. But these demonstrations all took place just weeks apart in the same coastal area where long-range weaponry is launched at a rocky islet. Even the most carefully edited propaganda may reveal something unexpected and this is what became apparent when Kim oversaw “guided artillery fire” between March 13 and 21. Photos of these events published by the state news agency confirmed what many have suspected for decades–putting aside North Korea’s varied missiles, its armed forces are stuck with an antiquated inventory.

Since these demonstrations involve massing different kinds of weapons on a sandy beach their tactical value, or effectiveness in real combat, is dubious. More so when the artillery put on display are hand-me-downs from the Soviet Union. On March 13 an entire row of ML-20 152mm howitzers were photographed lobbing shells towards the sea (picture below). The ML-20 was once considered a cutting edge design, capable of firing various ammunition types at ranges between three to 17 kilometers, when it entered service with the Soviet army in 1937. Several thousand were manufactured in the course of World War 2 and these were later delivered to Moscow’s allies in the Warsaw Pact and elsewhere.

Via Rodong Sinmun.

The Korean People’s Army (KPA) are fastidious in their maintenance of old kit. To this day PPSh-41 submachine guns and T-34-85 tanks are kept in working order as part of a doctrine where any available weapon is deemed valuable should the country mobilize for war. Having a large pool of old but functional equipment has other benefits; technical expertise is honed and maintenance budgets are kept within reasonable bounds. The problem with keeping dozens, or possibly hundreds, of ML-20s is the howitzers are so antiquated they would prove a liability when used against the sophisticated artillery weapons deployed by the South Korean army.

This is what transpired in the 2010 Yeonpyeong crisis when North Korean coastal batteries fired at the small community on the island after an unexplained provocation. South Korea’s response was swift and overwhelming and Seoul made sure it evacuated Yeonpyeong’s 1,600 civilians and brought them out of harm’s way. If a Yeonpyeong-like exchange happened again and escalated, South Korea’s air and naval superiority would decimate the North’s artillery emplacements within hours, regardless of the KPA’s ground-based anti-aircraft defenses. Unless North Korea’s state-owned munitions factories have extended range laser-guided 152mm ammunition for the KPA’s ML-20’s their usefulness against South Korean targets is perplexing when they’re outperformed by the ROK Army’s own 155mm howitzers.

To illustrate the yawning gap between the ML-20 and a contemporary artillery piece, a South Korean KH179 loaded with rocket-assisted ammunition has a range from 30 to 50 km. An ML-20 with standard HE-FRAG ammunition manages a range of just 17 km. Given the ML-20’s shorter barrel length and age–going on 70 years–switching to contemporary 152mm ammunition doesn’t enhance its striking power. Unless, of course, there’s a special type of rocket-assisted ammunition available to the ML-20.

D-20 howitzers of the KPA. Via Rodong Sinmun.

Far more effective are the KPA’s D-20 152mm howitzers. The variant used by the KPA, which also participated in last month’s artillery demonstrations, are similar to Romania’s variant of the D-20. The D-20 was a prolific Soviet towed artillery piece designed in the 1950s that enjoyed mass-production and strong exports. It’s still in use today with dozens of armies, with Syria and Ukraine being two conflicts where it saw heavy use, and “base bleed” ammunition can extend its range beyond 17 kilometers to as far as 30 km. When employed together with the KPA’s 122mm, 130mm, and 170mm howitzers the likely outcome is a total disruption of the enemy’s communications and logistics, with severe material damage on critical infrastructure. This scenario gets bleaker should North Korea unleash its new generation of precision missiles on other sensitive locations.

Unlike the ML-20, North Korea has the technology and production facilities for manufacturing its own variant of the D-20–or at least its barrel–and has adapted the gun for different self-propelled carriages. The latest artillery system developed by North Korea looks like a clean sheet design, however. But accurate assessments of North Korean artillery weapons are non-existent and the best estimates put its size at 21,000 pieces, including multiple rocket launchers. A portion of this number are Soviet vintage models such as the ML-20 and outdated calibers like 85mm and 76mm guns and several thousand mortars.

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