Along with its continued production of nuclear and weapons and its growing arsenal of increasingly capable ballistic missiles, North Korea’s very large force of forward-deployed artillery pieces is often cited as one of the principal security threats presented by the DPRK.
The Original Deterrent
Prior to the emergence of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenals, North Korea’s artillery formed the core of its deterrence strategy. Indeed, when in the early 1990s the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton considered an attack on North Korea in response to the DPRK’s nascent nuclear weapons program, the U.S. was given pause by the amount of damage that could be inflicted by a North Korean counterattack against the South that would likely have involved extensive artillery barrages. This – and the timely intervention of former President Jimmy Carter – helped to stave off a military conflict that would have resulted in a tremendous number of casualties.
Today, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenals play an increasingly prominent role in the country’s defense plans, but North Korea’s artillery force likely remains a key component of those plans as well. Beyond its potent deterrent effect, the North Korean artillery force would play an important role in both offensive and defensive wartime strategy.
While North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenals have continued to improve – including with the development of an array of advanced short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that appear to be increasingly capable of challenging missile defense systems deployed in South Korea – North Korea’s conventional military capabilities have struggled to keep pace. The Korean People’s Army remains one of the world’s largest standing militaries with roughly 1.3 million active-duty personnel but is also qualitatively inferior to the armed forces of both the United States and South Korea.
To compensate for its qualitative deficiencies – and in response to the larger shit in the military balance on the Korean Peninsula in favor of the South – North Korea has focused on the development of asymmetric military capabilities. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, North Korea invests its resources into areas where it believes it possesses some relative advantage over its adversaries. This is not an entirely new approach for North Korean military development, with the DPRK in the 1960s having implemented a defense policy which, among other things, stressed the need to pursue military capabilities which provided the country the greatest strategic benefit at the lowest possible cost. The large number of North Korean artillery pieces arrayed along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that are capable of inflicting significant damage on targets south of the DMZ are largely in keeping with this line of thinking.
Where the Big Guns Stand Today
North Korea’s artillery force is today made up of more than 14,000 artillery systems, including an estimated 8,600 artillery guns and 5,500 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs). The most ubiquitous and easily recognizable of these is the imposing the M-1978 Koksan. First manufactured in the 1970s, the Koksan is armed with a massive indigenously produced 170mm gun, and is mounted on a T-54 or T-59 tank chassis. The Koksan possessed an initial range of about 43 km, though the development of a rocket-assisted round has helped to increase its range to 54 km. North Korea may also have developed a chemical round for use with the Koksan.
North Korea also operates a number of MRLs, including a range of 107, 122, and 200mm systems. The most prominent of North Korea’s rocket artillery pieces, however, are the M-1985 and M-1991 240mm MRLs. Dating back to the mid-1980s and early 1990s, respectively, these systems are capable of launching roughly 85 kg rockets up to a range of 40 to 60 km.
While North Korea’s longer-range systems such as the Koksan are capable of targeting the Greater Seoul Metropolitan area, the DPRK also operates a wide range of short- and medium-range artillery systems capable of striking targets along and to the rear of the DMZ. In addition, North Korea has continued to develop its artillery force in recent years, unveiling both a new 122mm howitzer and a new MLR in the form of the KN-09, which is capable of firing large 300mm rockets.
How They Fit Into the DPRKs Wartime Strategy
Given its conventional inferiority and its lack of long-term sustainment capabilities, during any major military operations undertaken against the U.S.-ROK Alliance, North Korea will likely look to bring about an early termination of the conflict on terms favorable to it. In an offensive setting, this will likely involve an attempt to surprise and overwhelm U.S. and South Korean forces in an effort to secure its military objectives before the alliance can effectively respond or introduce additional forces into the conflict. Such a rapid, blitzkrieg-style attack will likely involve early artillery barrages to overwhelm enemy forces along the DMZ, but will also require a speedy push into enemy territory. North Korea has long recognized the need to ensure that its artillery was capable of keeping up with advancing forces, and as early as the 1960s began mechanizing its artillery systems. Those artillery pieces capable of doing so will likely move up in support of advancing North Korean ground forces.
Such a Korean War-style advance of North Korean troops into South Korea is today increasingly unlikely, however, and a more plausible scenario is a North Korean attempt to rapidly escalate a conflict in order to bring about its prompt end before the DPRK is overwhelmed by its adversaries. In the context of such an “escalate-to-deescalate” strategy, North Korean artillery will feature prominently as a result of its ability to inflict tremendous damage to both South Korean civilian and military targets from Seoul north to the DMZ.