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North Korea Maximized Its Best Rocket Artillery

December 20, 2021
Via North Korean media.

With its strategic missile arsenal having matured in just five short years the impoverished dictatorship poured additional resources to upgrade the rest of its military. The results came to light in Pyongyang on October 10, 2020, during an immense military parade and another similar event in January this year. All the available evidence suggests North Korea’s military-industrial sector is thriving despite the country’s economic hardship. (The same applies to China, Iran, and Russia.) Yet a particular class of weapons have grown in importance and size for the People’s Army–battlefield rockets.

The intimidating selection were parked inside an exclusive venue in October–a year after their first appearances–for another carefully orchestrated event graced by Kim Jong Un’s presence. The “Self Defense 2021” arms show was a literal feast–Kim was photographed enjoying appetizers and beers with his generals–for the country’s martial class and their recent achievements that included an intermediate-range missile armed with a hypersonic glider. But also spotted in the same venue were the new battlefield rockets the army acquired. All of them are extremely dangerous.

A particular concern is what looks like an upgraded KN-09 multiple rocket launcher (seen above) parked behind its larger siblings. The KN-09 is somewhat comparable to the Chinese A100 and the Russian BM-30 Smerch that are both loaded with 300mm munitions. North Korea has aggressively developed rocket artillery since the 1960s and, unlike its other domestic military products, this class of armaments are on par with the best offered by China and Russia. The KN-09 that was first identified in the 2000s attracted scrutiny when subsequent tests during the 2010s established its munitions had an effective range of 200 kilometers–easily making them the most destructive munitions in their caliber. Among 300mm battlefield rockets the Israeli-made Extra manages an effective range of 150 km while Belarus’ Polonez has rockets equal to the KN-09’s. But then again, the Polonez’ technology was supplied by China and mounted on a Belarusian transporter.

The KPA’s rocket artillery was always a motley collection of smaller calibers such as the ubiquitous 107mm and 122mm rockets together with unique calibers such as 240mm and 333mm. These were configured for a variety of transports and using a tracked vehicle remains popular. The large diameter rocket artillery that supersedes the KN-09 comes in three vehicle types: an elongated 8×8 chassis carrying four tubes, another 8×8 chassis carrying five tubes, and an enormous tracked carrier with six tubes. The latest variant of the KN-09, on the other hand, is now based on a larger wheeled armored transporter with 12 rather than the original four launch tubes from the 2000s. Its lesser siblings are an upgraded M1991 that features a new armored transporter with 22 launch tubes for its 240mm rockets and an upgraded Grad launcher with 40 tubes on an elongated 6×6 transport.

The evolution of the KN-09 represents a transition away from the KPA’s older artillery weapons whose effectiveness in any war scenario is coming into question. When stacking the KPA’s newest rocket artillery and tactical ballistic missiles the picture that emerges is all of South Korea is within bombardment range. There’s the threat of proliferation as well. North Korea’s capacity for arms exports remains intact and it has half a century of experience helping poor countries enhance their military industries. North Korean expertise allowed Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Syria to manufacture their own battlefield rockets. There’s evidence North Korea has done the same for Myanmar by setting up its production of 122mm and 240mm rocket artillery. The UAE was even a customer for North Korean rocket artillery in the late 1980s. All these past relationships transformed the military power of the end users; furthermore, North Korean assistance laid the foundations for the ballistic missile arsenals, and subsequent nuclear weapons programs, of Iran and Pakistan.

The same risk applies to the KN-09 and its siblings. Regardless how one views North Korea’s relationship with the rest of the world marketing and transferring its most advanced weapon systems will contribute to regional instability. There are at least five potential clients spread across Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia who can benefit from a rocket artillery like the KN-09 and in the process enrich Pyongyang’s coffers. What makes containing North Korean arms exports so difficult are the weapon systems don’t need to be delivered. North Korea is ready to establish localized production–like it did with Iran–and leave the client with lethal modular technology. The dangerous part is mastering the production of rocket artillery opens up its broad applications and enhancements whether it’s the vehicle type used as a transporter or improving the guidance system.

The KN-09 is one of the world’s best mobile rocket artillery launchers and North Korea’s usual friendship circle have access to it along with other very advanced weaponry.

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