12.04.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

“Freedom Shield” and Other Events of February-March 2024. Part Three: The North Is Keeping Up

KN-24 solid-fuel ballistic

Contrary to the anticipation of anti-Pyongyang propaganda discussed in the previous part of this digest, there have been no direct provocations, including in the area of the disputed maritime border. Instead, the North conducted its own exercise and criticized the enemy’s.

Already on the day the exercise began, March 4, a DPRK Ministry of Defense spokesman issued a press statement. “The frantic war drills by the ROK puppets and vassal forces led by the US make a clear contrast with the reality of the DPRK mobilizing large-scale military forces into economic construction for the promotion of the people’s well-being, confirm again the source of regional instability and more clearly show who is the arch criminal threatening the mankind with nukes.”

The author emphasized that a large-scale military exercise of this level “can never be called defensive” and traditionally demanded an end to provocations. “The US and the ROK will be made to pay a dear price for their false choice.”

On March 6, Kim Jong-un “visited the KPA’s main base for operational exercises in the western part of the country, where he inspected training facilities and supervised practical exercises of units.” The essence of the exercise was not disclosed, but Kim was pleased and “had his picture taken with the trustworthy fighters who displayed steadfast will and valor in this day’s exercise and vividly demonstrated the combat capability to fight the enemy with the formula of one against a hundred.”

And on March 7, Kim, accompanied by top generals (Pak Jong Chon, secretary of the WPK Central Committee and vice-chairman of the WPK Central Military Commission, Kang Sun Nam, minister of National Defense of the DPRK, Ri Yong Gil, chief of the KPA General Staff, etc.) “led artillery training firing exercises of large KPA formations.” The exercise “was aimed at testing and evaluating the ability of artillery units of large KPA formations to deliver a fire attack through power demonstrations and competitions, to improve the combat readiness and practical skills of artillerymen” and “began with demonstration firing of long-range artillery units, which, while putting the enemies’ capital at risk, perform important military tasks to deter war near the state border line.”

Kim Jong-un “personally went to the firing positions” where he expressed satisfaction with the results of the exercise, stressing the need to maintain a high level of mobilization readiness and combat capability of the formations. And as Russian military expert Vladimir Khrustalev points out, photos from the exercise showed a certain reorganization of the artillery fleet. The 170-mm long-range SPGs are still in service, but instead of the 152-mm SPGs, the M-2018 155-mm SPGs were shown.

It is said that on the same days (March 5 to 7), the DPRK used EW systems to suppress GPS signals in the area of islands in the north-west of the Korean peninsula. The ROK immediately recalled that between March 31 and April 5, 2016, in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, North Korea carried out a massive GPS jamming that covered almost the entire capital region, affecting 1,794 cellular base stations, 1,007 aircraft and 751 ships. However, this time, apart from the two civilian ships temporarily losing GPS signal, no damage was done.


On March 13, the DPRK leader led a training competition of large KPA tank formations using the unit-on-unit method. The exercise, which judging by the description resembled the Russian “tank biathlon,” vividly demonstrated the impeccable practical skills and unparalleled fighting spirit of valiant tankers forging a strong combat unit with high maneuverability and striking power, as well as the reliable power and constant combat readiness of tanks, one of the most powerful means of warfare.

However, experts rather paid attention to North Korea’s new M-2020 main battle tank (unofficial name), which at least entered into service with the tank units that took part in the maneuvers. According to the KCNA, “after the tank crew review, Comrade Kim Jong-un personally sat in a new type of line tank and drove the tank with a firm grip on the steering wheel, thus strengthening the elevated morale and impetus of the tank crews of our army and imprinting in their hearts a consistent view of the enemy and the war.” According to the DPRK leader, “the new-type line tank, which has demonstrated its striking combat capability for the first time at today’s tank competition, has perfectly demonstrated its powerful striking force and maneuverability.”

South Korean experts, naturally, brushed off the tank as offering nothing new. In their opinion, Pyongyang’s claims about its characteristics and capabilities seem exaggerated and it is unlikely that the new combat vehicle will be deployed en masse in the KPA tank units; given all the deadlines, their number in the troops should be limited. They say that within the effective range of fire, the new combat vehicle will not be able to counter the main South Korean tank RK K2 Black Panther (the gun and ammunition will not allow); however, the main gun M-2020 has a caliber of 115-mm (more likely) or 125-mm, while the Panther’s caliber is 120-mm. However, the Pulse-3 or Pulse-4 (불새/Phoenix) ATGM system installed on the new tank – 2 missiles with a range of about 5.5 km – poses a significant threat. The total weight of the tank is estimated at 50 tons (the Panther has 55 tons), but representatives of the ROK Army think that the additional armor of 0.5-2 tons will affect mobility: the turret has elements of dynamic protection, and the entire tank is equipped with an active protection system similar to the Russian T-14 Armata tank.

On March 15, Kim Jong-un “together with his daughter” directed an exercise of airborne troop units aimed at testing the readiness of airborne paratroopers to mobilize for any operational plan in an unexpected wartime situation, to evaluate their practical skills applied to suitable ways of conducting various combat operations. The DPRK leader highly appreciated that the participants of the drills were consistently prepared not only in political and ideological aspects but also in military and technical and physical aspects, and proposed to methodically organize scientifically-based combat exercises to proactively respond to various topographical, meteorological and diurnal conditions in general, intensive drills to improve skills to fight in the harshest conditions and sudden combat circumstances, so as to train future brave, capable combatants at all ranges of the army.

Kim Jong-un emphasized that “the main task before the People’s Army is both first, second and third, preparation for war,” while Russian experts reflected that for a normal big war and realistic penetration into the depths of the enemy, such an exercise looks strange. However, according to Vladimir Khrustalev, if one assumes that Pyongyang has some plan for a decisive but geographically limited operation on the border in case of some skirmish/incident at the DMZ, then all these sudden and quick seizures of facilities like an island garrison or a border fortification look realistic.

On the morning of March 18, according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the DPRK launched three ballistic missiles that flew 350 km each with a maximum flight altitude of 50 km and fell into the sea near the eastern coast of the Korean peninsula. According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee of the ROK Armed Forces, KN-24 solid-fuel ballistic missiles capable of carrying a payload of 400-500 kg were launched.

The launch was condemned by everyone who was supposed to. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the ballistic missile launches were “totally unacceptable.” “Japan strongly condemns the latest ballistic missile launches, which violate relevant UN Security Council resolutions. North Korea’s series of actions threaten the peace and security of our country.” The US State Department official also noted that Pyongyang’s ballistic missile launches violate numerous UN Security Council resolutions, threaten neighboring countries and undermine regional security.

On March 18, Kim Jong-un personally supervised the large-scale firing of a unit of 600-mm caliber “super-large rocket launchers.” In fact, it is a MLRS (known as KN-25 in the West) firing short-range missiles with a range of up to 380 km and the speed of a Katyusha, and the missiles can carry a nuclear warhead. This time, the leader was accompanied by Jang Chang Ha, general director of the DPRK Missile Administration.

At the exercise, Kim Jong-un was not only at the command post, but also “inspected the firing positions, where he familiarized himself with the automatic fire control system, learned the combat deployment time, tactical data, etc. of mobile launchers, then observed the movements of artillerymen during firing duty.” This is not surprising, as Kim was trained in the military and his specialty was artillery reconnaissance.

The exercise was quite important. First, for the first time an entire battery of six launchers, rather than individual guns, was fired, thus testing not how MLRSs fire in principle, but how they meet the challenges of modern warfare. Second, in addition to the firing, there was a “simulated test of detonation with a projectile of a super-large jet gun in the air at a certain height above the target,” i.e.,nuclear warhead in air detonation mode. Third, they tested the fire control system. Fourth, the exercise showed high accuracy: the target was an island the size of a rock, and to hit such an object one must be accurate to within a few tens of meters.

On March 19, 2024, the DPRK successfully tested the nozzle of a multi-stage solid-fuel jet engine that could eventually be used to power a medium- or long-range hypersonic missile. Kim Jong-un was pleased, and noted that “based on the security situation of our state and the operational requirement of the People’s Army, the military-strategic value of this missile system is no less important than ICBMs, and the enemies know this better.”

Thus, both sides are improving tactical training and developing military and technical capabilities. “If you want peace, prepare for war,” and this is the paradigm in which both sides of the 38th parallel think.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences and Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook” 

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