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North Korea Makes Lots Of Kornet Missiles

April 16, 2022
North Korean “Red Guard” troops in 2021. Via North Korean media.

While there’s good reason to doubt the effectiveness of its armed forces the country’s military industries aren’t easily dismissed. The public evidence of “high tech” equipment made in North Korea is well-documented and a particular cause for concern are its locally made 9M133 Kornet-E anti-tank missiles. It’s assumed a state-owned manufacturer is mass-producing the export variant of the ubiquitous missile in large numbers after earlier models based on Soviet vintage Fagot and Malyutka ATGMs are deemed outdated. North Korea’s history of exporting weapons to friendly countries goes back longer than South Korea and there’s a strong likelihood its Kornet ATGMs may end up abroad.

Since the 1990s the Russian-made Kornet enjoyed robust demand across the Middle East where it’s ordered in huge quantities. Licensed mass-production was shared with Iran and resulted in the “Dehlavieh” that has been delivered to Tehran’s proxies wherever they operate. Since the 2010s batches of Kornet missiles reached Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE with strong sales in Africa and Latin America as well. What makes the Kornet so popular is its missile stored in a portable container and launch tube along with its tripod mount and optics that are easy to assemble and disassemble. According to Russia’s state-owned arms exporting agency the 152mm missile boasts a maximum range of 5.5 kilometers in the daytime and 4.5 km at night. The improved Kornet-EM nearly doubles the missile’s range to 10 km. The Kornet’s Russian manufacturer offers weapon stations for multiple Kornet ATGMs if these are to be installed on vehicles.

North Korean mass-production of Kornet ATGMs is apparent from official propaganda where it was spotted at events involving the “Worker Peasant Red Guard” (pictured above) and at an indoor exhibition titled “Self Defense 2021.” The North Korean Red Guard is a paramilitary branch who receive basic military training as reservists. Together with a “Red Youth Guard” they help bolster the regular armed forces and are issued separate equipment, which apparently includes artillery, missile launchers, and their own vehicles. The US’ intelligence community estimates these paramilitary “Guard” formations to have as many as six million trained men and women in their ranks. If ATGMs and MANPADS, also known as shoulder-fired SAMs, are given to Red Guard units this indicates a higher level of training beyond small arms. Perhaps the Red Guard have permanent specialist units who are available for mobilization if a long war against South Korea erupts.

The local variants of the Kornet are enjoying greater use on vehicles than as portable anti-tank missile launchers for infantry. An updated wheeled APC of the ground forces is equipped with a turret carrying five missiles. The turret itself is an enclosed compartment with a pop up hatch for a launcher. The strange layout makes the vehicle a more sophisticated “tank destroyer” of sorts compared with the army’s antiquated gun carriages. Another perplexing application of North Korean Kornets are tandem launchers attached to the turrets on the latest main battle tanks assembled for the army. What kind of advantage these are supposed to give the tank’s crew still eludes serious attempts at understanding how the entire weapon system functions.

It should appear that North Korean Kornet ATGMs are unimportant in the vast scale of weaponry developed for Kim Jong Un’s armed forces–ICBMs and hypersonic gliders are better known and have greater impact on regional diplomacy for their newsworthiness. But for North Korea to possess a growing stockpile of laser-guided and even non-line-of-sight ATGMs means it has succeeded in overcoming its military’s obsolescent arsenal. The risk of these missiles being delivered elsewhere is too high to ignore. In the last decade alone North Korea’s arms exports have fueled wars in the Middle East and North Africa and there aren’t strong enough measures in place to keep the same happening in the 2020s.

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