North Korea’s whirlwind of strategic ballistic missile testing has captured the world’s attention. The reclusive, impoverished country has developed missiles that many analysts believe can reach as far as the United States. While alarming, Pyongyang has also made considerable progress on the tactical rocket front, developing precision-guided rockets that can strike targets miles a hundred or more miles south of the demilitarized zone.
The Korean People’s Army (KPA) made a considerable investment in field artillery after the Korean War of 1950–53. In addition to field guns and howitzers, the KPA began arming itself with Soviet bloc multiple rocket launchers at the brigade/regimental level and above. At the regimental level, KPA regiments are armed with a battery of nine M-1992 107mm towed rocket launchers (twelve tubes each) or RPU-14 140mm towed multiple rocket launchers (fourteen tubes each). At the division level, each KPA combat division has a multiple rocket launcher battalion, with twelve M-1992 122mm truck mounted multiple rocket launchers.
At the Corps level, each KPA infantry, mechanized, or tank corps has six battalions of 240mm multiple rocket launchers with 108 launch vehicles. The KPA originally acquired many of these artillery systems in the 1950s. In 2012, possible replacements appeared in a parade in Pyongyang. The new systems appear to be roughly 240mm in diameter and feature twelve or twenty-two rocket tubes on new, Chinese-made trucks.
All of this means that, from the regimental level onward KPA commanders have the ability to saturate an area with rocket fire, suppressing enemy defenses with a hail of rockets. The larger and more important the attack, the more rocket artillery is available to support it. A crucial, division-level attack with the full support of the corps commander could expect volleys of a thousand or more 240mm rockets and 480 122mm rockets at a time slamming into a enemy defenses—and that number doesn’t even include traditional tube artillery such as guns and howitzers.
In recent years, the KPA has unveiled a new heavy, long range multiple rocket launcher system. Known as KN-09, the system consists of eight or twelve 300mm rockets on a Chinese Howo six-by-six truck chassis. The KN-09 was first observed in March 2014, when eight rockets were fired into the Sea of Japan. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the U.S. intelligence community assesses the KN-09 as having a range of 118 miles. Launched a healthy distance from the DMZ, the new rocket system can still attack targets across the northern half of South Korea. Even more interesting is the fact that the 300mm rockets have nose fins, suggesting they may be precision guided. Exactly how North Korea received the technical know-how to develop this weapon is a matter of speculation.
There are a number of caveats to North Korea’s rocket artillery strength, however. Although each corps is supposed to have six battalions of 240mm rocket artillery, there are nowhere near enough to equip the nineteen KPA corps, with many of the multiple rocket launchers first acquired in the 1950s. If there is a shortage of heavy rocket artillery, it is likely only KPA units based near the DMZ are equipped with the weapons.
KPA rocket forces, like the rest of the North Korean military, are difficult to gauge in quality. The rocket artillery attack on Yeonpyeong island on November 23, 2010 offers some insights. KPA forces, estimated at two batteries of 122mm multiple rocket launchers, bombarded the island with a total of 170 rockets. Two Republic of Korea marines and two civilians were killed in the bombardment.
The rocket attack appears to have been aimed at a ROK Marine Corps garrison on the island but was affected by poor accuracy and a high dud rate. Of the 150 rounds fired in the first barrage, only sixty rounds actually impacted on land at all, and many hit local villages. Ninety of the rounds missed the island completely and impacted in the water. Approximately 25 percent of the rounds were duds, a very high failure rate.
Applied to the KPA rocket artillery force as a whole, the attack does not bode well for future success. Mounting a surprise attack during peacetime, the North Korean rocket battalion had plenty of time to prepare for the attack yet still a majority of the rounds missed. A dud rate of 25 percent, as Nautilus Institute analyst Roger Cavazos points out, is “is like taking every fourth artillery tube away.” The artillery attack may have also experienced failures of rockets to launch, meaning the overall failure rate could be even higher.
Further, while the prospect of rocket artillery used to bombard Seoul is a frightening one, their use to do so in a war scenario is not guaranteed. There is a dangerous opportunity cost in using North Korean rocket artillery as a terror weapon. As far as anyone knows, all rocket artillery in the KPA is assigned to support maneuver forces; there is no evidence of rocket artillery whose sole role is to conduct terror attacks on Seoul.
This poses a dilemma for North Korea: if it were to bombard Seoul with artillery, such an attack would immediately kick off Korean War II. KPA artillery carrying out the attacks would be rapidly hunted down by U.S. and ROK forces and destroyed. This would also sap KPA conventional forces of their primary support for a cross-border attack. The KPA can bombard Seoul or mount a ground attack, but it can’t do both, and if it loses its ability to threaten South Korea with a ground attack it loses much of its strategic relevance.
North Korea’s progress in the field of rocket artillery is a danger not only to U.S. and South Korean front line forces but bases, facilities, ports, and other facilities across the country. These new long range rockets are a challenging new vector for regime attacks and South Korea is already attempting to counter them with defensive rockets of its own. The arms race on the Korean Peninsula continues.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.