The North Korean Artillery Threat
North Korea’s continued development of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities remains a top national security threat. These programs do not, however, represent the totality of the military threat emanating from the DPRK.
North Korea’s conventional capabilities still pose a challenge, and perhaps none more so than the country’s large artillery force. During either a war on the Korean Peninsula or as elements of a coercive campaign, these weapons are capable of inflicting tremendous loss of life and physical destruction on South Korea and U.S. forces stationed there.
North Korean Artillery
North Korea’s artillery force consists of over 14,000 artillery systems, along with an additional 5,550 multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS); these numbers constitute roughly twice the amount of artillery systems fielded by the South Korean military and twenty times as many MLRSs. North Korea’s primary long-range artillery system is the 170-mm M-1978 Koksan. First deployed in the 1970s, the Koksan is a self-propelled artillery system mounted on a Russian tank chassis with a maximum range of roughly 54 km.
North Korea’s primary rocket artillery systems are the M1985/1991 MLRS. In service since the 1980s, these systems are capable of firing 240-mm rockets up to a maximum range of 60 km. A new model MLRS – dubbed the KN-09 – is also in development, and has been tested several times since its first appearance in 2013. The KN-09 carries a payload of eight 300-mm rockets and is assessed to possess a range of up to 190 km. North Korea has continued to emphasize the development of its artillery capabilities, and during the October 10, 2020, military parade in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the country’s ruling party, the DPRK unveiled both new MLRS and self-propelled artillery systems.
Warfighting and Coercion
In the event of a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s artillery force will likely play a prominent role. Analysts have assessed that, given the discrepancy in conventional military capabilities between North Korea and both South Korea and the United States, the DPRK will look to secure a quick and decisive end to a war. This will likely involve quick escalation of a conflict by North Korea, utilizing the full range of its asymmetric military capabilities in an attempt to rapidly secure its military objectives and bring about early conflict termination before the U.S. and South Korea can effectively respond.
Such a strategy requires that North Korea be able to inflict maximum physical and psychological damage during the opening stages of a conflict, and helps to explain why roughly 70 percent of North Korea’s military forces – including its artillery systems – are forward deployed to within 60 miles of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). As a result of their forward deployment, North Korean 170-mm guns and 240-mm MLRS are within striking range of Seoul and, while exact estimates vary, it is likely that somewhere between 30,000 and 300,000 people would be killed in the first few days of fighting as a result of North Korean conventional artillery attacks. This number will likely be considerably higher if North Korean artillery is used as a delivery mechanism for the country’s large stockpile of chemical weapons.
Given the threat posed by these systems, any conflict on the peninsula would feature early attempts by the United States and South Korea to target and destroy North Korean artillery, a task made much more difficult by the existence of hundreds of Hardened Artillery Sites (HARTS). Often dug into the sides of mountains, these reinforced structures offer some protection for North Korean artillery systems from counter-battery fire and airstrikes, allowing them to remain online and available to fire for longer.
A RAND Corporation report, through an analysis of five hypothetical scenarios, demonstrates the value of North Korean artillery beyond their use in a full-scale military conflict. According to the study, North Korean artillery could be employed against a wide range of military, civilian, and economic targets from the DMZ to Seoul, providing the DPRK leadership with military options across several levels of the escalatory ladder.
In addition to their use in war, the threat posed by North Korean artillery offers a credible and effective deterrent, while limited artillery strikes can also be used a means to terminate a small-scale conflict before it escalates into a major conventional conflict. In addition, North Korean artillery could be used in a coercive manner.
As both a prominent component of North Korean strategy for waging a large-scale war on the Korean Peninsula and an effective tool for both deterrence and coercion, North Korean artillery capabilities represent a multifaceted threat, one capable of inflicting tens of thousands of casualties. Such a threat should not be overlooked, even as the threat from North Korea’s strategic weapons program continues to grow.
Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a current graduate student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.