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The Peninsula

North Korea’s Conventional Weapons Threat

Published February 5, 2013
Category: North Korea

By Chad O’Carroll

With North Korea’s recent satellite launch highlighting the progressing state of Pyongyang’s long-range rocket capabilities and prospects of a third nuclear weapons test likely to show further advancements in that area, it is easy to forget about the DPRK’s conventional weapons technology. While the North Korean rocket and nuclear programs no doubt pose serious risks in the medium to long-term, their high impact effects suggests they would be the least likely technologies to be used in any Korean conflict in the short term. We’ve already taken a look at the asymmetrical challenges of North Korea’s Air Force (KPAF) on this blog, so today we take a closer look at the nation’s artillery systems – systems that have long been rumored capable of turning Seoul into a “sea of fire.


Pyongyang often boasts of its capacity to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire”, something arguably more related to its forward deployed weapons systems than the controversial nuclear weapons program.  Possessing some 8,500 field artillery pieces (caliber 122mm or greater) and 5,100 multiple-launch rocket systems, the Korean People’s Army could certainly inflict serious damage along the Southern side of the DMZ in the event of a surprise attack. Nevertheless, a close look at these capacities suggests that although Pyongyang does indeed possess a large projectile arsenal, a relatively small proportion of it would be capable of targeting downtown Seoul from north of the DMZ.

Since the 1994 nuclear crisis, the DPRK has put a high priority on deploying weapons systems along the DMZ that can damage South Korea without the need of a ground invasion.  But of the estimated 13,000 or so field artillery pieces and multiple-launch rocket systems in North Korea’s possession, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in 2011 reported that just 700 of these systems are considered to have the range needed to hit Seoul. And when it comes to being in a position to actually target Seoul, IISS also reported that fewer than half (300) of these systems are actually deployed in areas close enough to reach the South Korean capital. So in the event of a conflict, would these 300 or so artillery pieces really be able to turn Seoul into a sea of fire?


North Korea’s 170mm Koksan guns, reported to be the only artillery which “can reach central Seoul from behind the North Korean Border,” are arguably Pyongyang’s most powerful artillery asset. Designed to fire between two to four rounds per minute, these massive guns (each 14m long) can strike targets 40km away if using conventional mortar ammunition, or up to 54km when firing “rocket assisted projectiles”. Depending on positioning, both of these ranges put South Korea’s capital city firmly in target of North Korea’s artillery men. And if using the rocket propelled mortar variants, these Koksan guns could be hidden among sites a few kilometers north of the DMZ and still reach downtown Seoul with full effect.

In total, both the Nautilus Institute and Global Security suggest there are as many as 500 of these long-range guns located along the DMZ. Capable of launching “4 rounds a minute” in any opening barrage, North Korean military expert Roger Cavazos says that after initial salvos, “the DPRK has to go into a sustained rate of fire which is one round in just under three minutes, or about 24 rounds per hour.” Taken all together, these figures suggest that North Korea could bombard South Korea with about 12,000 shells per hour if it were to use all of its Koksan Guns simultaneously. However, for strategic reasons this isn’t likely, because it would expose all of these units to allied counter-attack at the outset. In addition, figures published by IISS (also shared by Mr. Cavazos) suggest only about 100 of these guns are located close to Seoul, meaning a risk there of about 2,400 shells per hour. Though there are undoubtedly other cities and towns within reach of these Koksan Guns along the border, together it means the threat to Seoul is perhaps not sufficient to turn the capital into a “sea of fire”.


While the Koksan Guns undoubtedly form a core pillar of North Korea’s long-range artillery threat, as a direct threat to Seoul it is arguable that they form the lesser of two evils. That’s because the majority of Pyongyang’s most lethal artillery capability is invested in their 60km range, 240mm multiple rocket launchers (MRL 240).  Possessing around 200 of the MRL 240’s in the border region directly north of Seoul (according to IISS), these units would be well within range of bombarding even downtown areas in the South Korean capital.

Capable of launching 12-22 rounds in a single burst, the MRL240 rockets can include high explosive, smoke, incendiary and chemical warhead capabilities. In times of war, this forward facing deployment could reportedly fire up to 4,400 shells in a single burst, reloading four times per hour to bombard the capital city at a rate of between 9,600 to 17,600 rounds per hour (the variation depends on whether or not they use the 22 or 12 barrel capacity launchers). In a worst case scenario, this means the North Koreans could even be capable of quickly turning a 6 sq. km area “into rubble”. Wed to chemical warheads, the scope for damage increases significantly, albeit in non kinetic ways. And because these MRL 240’s are relatively unguided, their main goal can be seen as destroying large urban areas with “little regard for accuracy”.

It is important to note the above figures would be in a “best-case” scenario and that the actual figures could likely be far different. Indeed, satellite analysis shows that the majority of North Korea’s 240 MRL units are kept secure in Hardened Artillery Sites (HARTS) concentrated along the northern side of the DMZ. While this would protect them to some degree in the event of conflict, because a certain blast radius needs to be cleared when launching the rockets, the MRL 240 would need to come out from its defenses to fire. This would therefore puts the MRL units at grave risk of being quickly destroyed by U.S. and ROK forces in the event of conflict, meaning that they would unlikely be used simultaneously.


Having looked at North Korea’s long range artillery capability, it is evident that Pyongyang possesses two arsenals easily capable of causing serious damage to Seoul. Taken together, North Korea’s forward deployed long-range artillery could launch as many as 20,000 shells an hour at downtown Seoul. These numbers are significant and should not be taken lightly. However, it is important to underscore that these are best-case figures (from North Korea’s military point of view) and in all reality, performance and frequency of the bombardment would be much lower than the numbers detailed above.

First, there is the issue of range. While the Koksan Guns can at best hit targets up to 54km range and the MRL240’s 60km range, Roger Cavazos suggests this would not be enough to do significant damage in downtown Seoul. Underscoring that these ranges are in themselves best case figures, Cavazos explains, “North Korea’s weapons don’t reach into the most densely populated parts of Seoul… The DPRK might be able to range the very northern edges of Gangbuk gu, Nowon gu, Dobong gu, and Eunpyong gu and the Incheon suburb of Noyang, but the rest of Seoul proper is out of range.”

Second, as mentioned, there are military reasons that it remains highly unlikely that all of North Korea’s forward deployed artillery would be used simultaneously, even in the event of a surprise attack. This is because doing so would make allied forces acutely aware of launching points, while the decades old age nature of the machinery means it is probably not even possible from a technical perspective to use all of it simultaneously.

Finally, the recent bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island showed that 25% of the shells used in that attack proved to be duds. In addition, IISS reports that up to 50% of these shells missed their target (even though it was much closer than Seoul would be to North Korea’s long range artillery). And even if they do reach their targets, Cavazos suggests the damage could be minimal. “The issue is the weapons for the most part only reach low-density areas and bunkers.  This is what the same shells do to bunkers.  Fortunately, we don’t have any examples of those shells hitting a modern Seoul apartment complex all of which should be constructed according to reinforced standards.”

While the notion that North Korea could launch as many as 20,000 shells per hour looks unlikely in light of the issues described above, 300 artillery pieces in direct range of Seoul is of course a serious concern for allied commanders. A “sea of fire” might not be the result in case of their use, but it is evident that tens of thousands of civilians could die and even more injured if they were used in an indiscriminate way. However, that it would be political suicide for North Korea to use this weaponry in an unprovoked manner serves as a reminder of the unlikelihood of the DPRK using its artillery arsenal in the ways described above.


While we’ve take a look at North Korea’s most formidable artillery, it is nevertheless important to remember that this isn’t the full story. Indeed, the Korean People’s Army possesses a wide range of other self-propelled artillery pieces, including various road mobile 122mm and smaller MRL systems and the M-1992 120mm gun. In addition, it possesses towed systems like the D-20 152mm and D-30 122m guns, both of which could cause substantial damage when used in groups simultaneously. But because the range of all of these artillery pieces falls short of even suburban Seoul, it means their usage north of the DMZ would only be suited for nearby targets like military bases and small towns and villages. And in the event of conflict, it is not clear how long they’d be able to last when exposed in an active military environment or how soon they would run out of ammunition in a country where food distribution (PDS) has been so erratic.

It is also important to remember that North Korea can pose threats in many other ways to nearby Seoul. In particular, the KPA reportedly has chemical munitions for all types of artillery rounds 107mm and greater. Sixty five per cent of DPRK ground troops are now located within 60 miles of the DMZ, compared with 45 per cent in 1984.[1]  In addition, the DPRK now possesses an arsenal of roughly 600 Hwasong missiles and 100 Nodong missiles that put all of ROK and Japanese territory (and the United States bases therein) well within striking range of projectiles equipped withWMD warheads. Then as described in a previous post, there is the asymmetrical threat of the DPRK Air Force, a rather large naval presence, and a population that could see up to eight million soldiers conscripted in the event of conflict.

All together, North Korea’s non-nuclear ICBM threats are significant. But despite this, mainstream media (and even elected politicians) choose to focus primarily on Taepodong and Unha launches and underground nuclear tests.  With Seoul just a stone’s throw from the DMZ (35km), some estimates calculate that an artillery exchange alone between the Koreas could lead to as many as hundreds of thousands of deaths in Seoul, with one former U.S. commander saying it could even cost the U.S. 52,000 military personnel and over $100 billion, not to mention the catastrophic economic damages caused to the region. And that’s not even considering the manifold other ways North Korea is able to inflict damage using conventional military means.  As such, it seems that however things play out over the coming weeks and months, regardless of whether a nuclear test happens or not, all parties should pursue diplomacy at all costs.


Robinson, C. (2003), Stand-off withNorth Korea: War Scenarios and Consequences,CDIweekly Defence Monitor Volume 7, Issue #17

Chad 0′Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from NOS Nieuws photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

[1] Robinson,C.(2003),p.13

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