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North Korea Builds Very Powerful Outdated Battle Tanks

May 3, 2020

Via North Korean media.

The best estimate for the Korean People’s Army (KPA) armored fleet has been consistent since the 1990s. With up to 4,500 tanks for its ground forces the KPA outnumbers the ROK Army tank’s by 2:1. Yet the raw numbers hide glaring weaknesses. Until 2015, for example, the lavish parades organized in Pyongyang still featured aging Soviet-made T-55 and T-62 medium tanks. Since the last North Korean military parade in 2018–the parade for 2019 didn’t take place–a specific model has stood out for defying assumptions based on its appearance.

The main battle tank assigned a placeholder designation “Songun Ho” can easily pass for an unlicensed copy of a Soviet T-72. That is, until its finer details are scrutinized.

For a tank that’s made to appear as the pinnacle of North Korean self-sufficiency the Songun Ho enjoys a complete absence from state propaganda such as military exercises or demonstrations. What these broadcasts do reveal, with few exceptions, is what has been known for decades now; the KPA is burdened with aging equipment. As for the Songun Ho its last known public sighting in 2018 took defensive countermeasures to an absurd extreme. It’s been a longstanding practice for North Korean mechanized units to mount shoulder-fired SAMs on their vehicles. Not only did the Songun Ho from 2018 have twin MANPADS at the back of the turret, the tank commander had control over a tandem anti-tank missile launcher while the gunner’s weapon station combined two automatic grenade launchers.

To think just a year prior the Songun Ho boasted its usual secondary weapons–a 14.5mm KPV machine gun and a single MANPADS at the back. To this day there’s no accepted consensus why the Songun Ho is bristling with armaments. Perhaps these tanks are supposed to lead an assault on Seoul and cover ground troops by fending off various aircraft?


While the exact role the Songun Ho is expected to fulfill is up for debate, its design isn’t. The earliest photos of the tank, whose development was already rumored in the 1990s, reveal a typical cast steel turret common among Soviet second-generation tanks like the T-62 and the T-72. In fact, the T-62 and T-62M medium tanks exported to North Korea 50 years ago are deemed the basis for the Songun Ho. The turrets of the T-62M and Songun Ho are almost alike including the box-shaped laser rangefinder on the main gun and large circular infrared lamp or spotlight next to it. What is strange, however, is the gunner’s sight on the T-62, being a small round portal left of the main gun, is found on the Songun Ho.

This is an absurd detail because the T-62 has a manually loaded 115mm gun with the loader seated on the right hand corner of the turret while the gunner is on the left hand corner, hence the location of the gunner’s sight. The Songun Ho, on the other hand, is armed with a 125mm gun using an autoloader that feeds two-piece ammunition (the high explosive round and its propellant) and this requires the commander and gunner to be seated opposite each other instead of being crammed in the turret’s left hand corner like in the T-62.


The hull and chassis of the Songun Ho are easier to assess. The North Korean engineers tasked with launching domestic tank production understood Soviet armor well enough and stuck to the T-series the KPA had long mastered. To improve a future tank model’s performance against the threat posed by South Korea’s K1-88 main battle tank and the US Army’s M1/M1A1 Abrams during the 1990s they lengthened the hull for accommodating a new engine. The V-12 diesel engine on a 44 ton T-72 gives it a decent top speed of 60 kilometers per hour. The specific type of engine used by the Songun Ho can’t be determined but it if the tank weighs over 40 tons, given its turret and the main gun with its autoloader, the inadequate 500 horsepower diesel engine that powers the T-55 and T-62 leaves it defective.

This suggests North Korea’s automotive and metallurgical industries have reproduced Soviet V-series diesel engines whose output ranges from 780 to 900 horsepower. Without this technical breakthrough the only recourse is importing Chinese tank engines manufactured by a subsidiary of Norinco. It’s worth pointing out Russia’s own state-owned tank manufacturer began rolling out V-92S2F diesel engines in 2017 that had an output of 1,130 horsepower required by T-72B3 and T-90M tanks.


Another conundrum are the Songun Ho’s protective features. Most footage and imagery show the front of the hull or glacis is covered in square panels. It can’t be ascertained if these are a secondary layer of protection over a thick steel slab that covers the hull’s composite frontal armor; this means the glacis is formed by broad steel plates with a secondary material sandwiched between them. A thick steel slab on the glacis is found on the Soviet T-62M, a variant armed with a 125mm gun and large steel “brows” on either side of the turret. But the armor protection on the Songun Ho appears limited to reactive panels modeled after Soviet Kontakt-1 ERA applied to the T-72B. Kontakt-1 is obsolete compared to the Kontakt-5 and Relikt ERA on the Russian Army’s T-72B3 and T-90A tanks.

Additional reactive panels form wedges along the frontal arc of the Songun Ho’s turret and some cover the space between the turret hatches. Their odd placement exposes the limits of the tank’s design. It would have been easier to fortify the turret with layered ERA if it subscribed to an angular shape formed by welding armor slabs together such as on the Russian T-90M or the Chinese Type 99A. The Songun Ho’s bustle, or the squarish compartment found at the back of the turret, is another headscratcher. Bustles often serve as an extra storage compartment for ammo, like on many NATO tanks, and help distribute armor protection. On Chinese tanks like the Type 96A and Type 99A, for example, the bustles hold various subsystems and their sides are plastered with ERA bricks.


The haphazard placement of ERA on the Songun Ho’s turret leaves whole spaces vulnerable to enemy fire. This is bad news should it see combat against South Korean attack helicopters and main battle tanks. The arrival of portable top attack missiles for South Korean infantrymen like the “Raybolt” is another threat the Songun Ho isn’t designed to survive. Perhaps this explains the two small lamps protruding on either side of the turret. Their shape and placement indicates a detection system for alerting the crew of incoming missiles and other projectiles.

The Songun Ho is an impressive tank if it were developed during the 1980s as an imitation of the Soviet T-72B. At the time South Korea’s own K1 tanks and even the US Army’s M1 Abrams had 105mm main guns. Of course, this is no longer the case. The ROK Army may soon have 1,500 K1A1 tanks and another thousand K2 tanks by 2030. The KPA, on the other hand, is shifting to long-range tactical weapons so mass-producing the Songun Ho is uncertain. If there are already hundreds of Songun Hos in the KPA they join several thousand tracked fighting vehicles whose collective age resists further upgrades. A mature tank development program does exist within the KPA’s scientific-engineering structure and this can result in a new design with formidable characteristics at some point.

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