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North Korea Cobbled Together Some Weird Tanks

December 26, 2021
Via North Korean media.

A nighttime parade in October 2020 served as the most brazen display of martial strength since Kim Jong Un ascended to leadership in 2011. In the span of a decade the once anachronistic People’s Army updated its arsenal with an emphasis on strategic weapons. This program is ongoing and the results are inarguable. Yet there are some efforts that defy even the most rigorous observation. At the same October 2020 parade and its follow up in January 2021 columns of never before seen tanks appeared and they have eluded classification ever since.

Painted an uncharacteristic tan and with turrets bristling with armaments the battle tanks some have dubbed “M-2020” represent a drastic evolution of North Korean military engineering for combat vehicles. This new model boasts an elongated hull and an angular turret reminiscent of the South Korean K1, also known as the Type 88, whose assembly in the 1980s was helped along by the US. But other details of this North Korean battle tank remain peculiar such as a box launcher for anti-tank missiles hanging on the right side of the turret.

Some were quick to label this North Korean battle tank an offshoot of the Russian-made T-14, which made its first public appearance in 2015 and is still scheduled to enter low rate production, but serious scrutiny debunks this assumption. The North Korean “M-2020” has nothing in common with the T-14 except for some external characteristics and a hard kill active protection system (APS) that shoots rockets out of small canisters installed on the turret’s edges. This mimics the location of the Afghanit APS used on the T-14. There’s nothing else about the tank that points to any Russian involvement in its production.

Via North Korean media.

The APS on the “M-2020” is remarkable for having small rectangular radar panels mounted around the turret offering a spectrum of coverage. (See annotated photo above.) This countermeasure was never seen in any North Korean tank until now. The presence of an APS, digital cameras, and a meteorological device mean the tank’s crew are furnished with digitized control panels in their stations. This small bit of evidence proves the limited effect sanctions have on militaries that embrace self-sufficiency. It’s apparent the KPA and the state institutions that support it have a technological reach that defies external constraints.

What is interesting to note though is the turret was designed to accommodate three crew members. This is evident when the separate gunner and commander sights are located to the right of the main gun. The single crew member on the left must then be the loader stationed in front of the magazine. The loader’s role indicates the tank is armed with a manually fed main gun of undetermined caliber–its appearance, by the way, is reminiscent of a smoothbore 120mm gun found on third-generation NATO main battle tanks.

The addition of secondary and tertiary weapons on the “M-2020” battle tank defy explanation. An AGS-30 automatic grenade launcher is found near the loader’s hatch and this isn’t too surprising since the same is used on other North Korean armored vehicles. There’s a remote controlled weapon station where twin grenade launchers are perched on the turret. The KPA made a habit of putting these weapon stations on its tanks along with MANPADS. But the box launcher for anti-tank missiles on the “M-2020” doesn’t seem to have any purpose unless the crew are expected to target the enemy beyond their line-of-sight; The Kornet-EM ATGM has a maximum range of eight kilometers.

The “M-2020” made its third public appearance in mid-October this year when a single tank was parked at the edge of the stage where Kim Jong Un delivered a speech for the “Self Defense 2021” arms show. North Korean media didn’t furnish any details then but the tank served as an aesthetic contrast to the rockets and missiles that were stuffed inside the venue. The layout of the “M-2020” hull is noteworthy because it looks the same as the Songun Ho albeit elongated–there are seven road wheels on either side–to fit a larger engine. (The exhaust port is on the left side of the hill.) For enhanced protection layers of side skirts almost conceal the tracks and cage armor is hung on either side of the engine compartment. It’s clear North Korea’s military-industrial sector understands how various protective features all work together to improve a tank’s survivability but the final results still seems inadequate against South Korea’s own K1A1 and K2 MBTs.

The concepts behind the “M-2020” may lead to better combat vehicles for different roles; a heavy APC whose armaments bring together a powerful cannon and anti-tank missiles comes to mind. But the fact remains the KPA’s 4,000-strong tank fleet is burdened with obsolescence. Old Soviet T-34/85, T-55, PT-76, and T-62 tanks are mainstays that were being paraded until 2014. The succeeding generation of locally made tanks are just as dubious. But the engineering prowess of North Korea’s war economy can’t be dismissed. Some of its products inspire doubt but most are very lethal.

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