A column of nine tanks rolled through the streets of Pyongyang as part of a parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean Workers’ Party.
For most general observers, it was just another weapon on display — but a more detailed analysis has led to more questions among military experts.
Did Russia or China help them build it? Could it be just a prototype?
While most of the media headlines from the parade were trained on North Korea’s new “monster” ICBM, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) stunned the world by also unveiling a slew of other conventional weapons, National Interest reported.
Perhaps the most mysterious among them was the new main battle tank (MBT), that bears an uncanny resemblance to recent Russian and Chinese models.
While there is no concrete technical information at this point, it is possible to make some inferences from the outward design, National Interest reported.
First, it’s likely that this is either an early prototype or perhaps even a proof of concept; there is no indication that these tanks are being serially produced now, or will be at any point in the near future.
Secondly, the models shown at the parade are unlike any indigenously-produced North Korean tank, National Interest reported.
As noted by other defense observers, the chassis shares numerous design principles with Russia’s new T-14 Armata MBT and, to a lesser extent, China’s MBT-3000.
It’s too early to draw definitive conclusions, but — given how starkly this new tank deviates from prior North Korean designs — there is a distinct possibility that the KPA is researching and developing a modern MBT with the help of Russian or Chinese technology transfers, National Interest reported.
To be sure, an import arrangement along these lines would be anything but unprecedented.
The KPA’s tank roster is, in large part, composed of license-built Soviet T-54/55 and T-62’s — even their indigenously-built tanks, like the Chonma-Ho and newer Pokpung-Ho, are close derivatives of Soviet and Chinese models, National Interest reported.
The rest of the MBT showcases an eclectic mix of modern tank features. Defense outlet Military Recognition observed that the turret is designed in a similar fashion to the one found on the latest generation of the US M1A2 Abrams, but also boasts rows of tubes resembling Armata’s Afghanit Active Protection System.
The main armament is very likely a 125mm gun — in keeping with other recent North Korean tanks, it is possibly a derivative of the Soviet 2A46 smoothbore cannon, National Interest reported.
The turret also boasts a mounted machine gun and two anti-tank missile launchers for firing what observers believe to be Bulsae-3 missiles, which themselves are a copy of Russian Kornet missiles.
It remains unclear which of these features are fully functional, and how many, if any, are purely for display purposes.
All nine of the tanks came in a light-tan desert camo, which offers little battlefield value in the forested, mountainous terrain of the Korean Peninsula, National Interest reported.
This could be an indication that the tanks (and several other vehicles shown at the parade) are being marketed as export products.
When it comes to sensor, communications, and networking capabilities, in particular, this tank won’t even approach that of either the T-14 or the Chinese Type 99, let alone the M1A2 SEPv3, The War Zone reported.
The various boxes seen on the examples on parade could well be empty, meant to only reflect systems that North Korea hopes to integrate into the design as time goes on.
In addition, just having angular lines akin to those on the American tank also does not mean the North Korean one has anywhere near the same kind of complex composite passive armor, which includes layers of ceramics and depleted uranium, either, The War Zone reported.
The armor packages for the Abrams, which have been continually improved upon over the years, are so advanced and sensitive that the development of the initial “special armor” configuration for the tank was originally conducted within a top-secret Special Access Program nicknamed Green Grape.
Since the side skirts obscure the road wheels, it not possible to tell for sure, but it seems very plausible that the underlying chassis over this new North Korean tank still owes much to old Soviet designs, as well, The War Zone reported.
It’s not hard to believe that the North Koreans built on that proven design, with which they now have great experience with, in developing this latest tank rather than starting entirely from scratch.
The KPA tanks are likely more of a design concept than a fully-realized product — a distant vision of what North Korean MBT’s could become, National Interest reported.
Even so, North Korea is demonstrably forging ahead with several ambitious military modernization projects in spite of what has now been fourteen years of intense international sanctions.