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In Photos: Kim Jong-un Enjoying North Korean Military Exercises

Kim's live-fire photo-op offered us a chance to do a quick analysis of the weaponry North Korea is trotting out these days.

by Ryan Faith
Jul 16 2014, 9:05pm

Photos via Reuters/KCNA

Over the past couple of weeks, North Korea has expressed its displeasure at South Korea's rejection of North Korea's suggestion that South Korea stop carrying out military exercises with the US. In true North Korean fashion, that displeasure has not only been voiced with fiery rhetoric, it's been expressed with live-fire drills and military exercises.

Each successive Supreme Presidential Dear Everlasting North Korean Leader — in other words, the three Kims — has spoken the language of showy displays of armed force with a slightly different accent. This particular Kim — the Jong-un model — has been an even bigger fan of live-fire exercises than his predecessors. This might be because Kim Jong-un believes that watching explosions is very cool.

To make sure the coolness doesn't obscure the broader public relations component, the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA, but not to be confused with the Oregon radio station of the same name) has been releasing photos of the drills and exercises. So it's a win-win; Kim gets to blow up some stuff, and we get an excuse to do a quick analysis of what the North Korean military is up to these days.

This is a multiple launch rocket artillery system. The vehicle shown here is an M1991 — or something very similar. The design is a venerable, time-tested one and consists of 22 tubes that each hold a rocket. The accuracy is pretty terrible, so the odds of any single rocket hitting any point target are low. However, each truck fires its rockets in rapid succession, and launchers often fire together at a single target, so they are able to plaster a pretty sizable area in short order. The launchers carry only one shot per tube, so they need to drive somewhere to reload. But that works out, because they need to get the heck away from the launch site pretty quickly anyway after attracting so much attention.

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This is a smaller version of the M1991 that's towed by a vehicle. It fires 240mm rockets up to 37 miles — or twice that according to some recent announcements. These little guys are (or are very similar to) the Type 63, which fires 107mm rockets about 5 miles or so. Basically, the vehicle-mounted M1991 rockets are for banging on big things — like large troop concentrations and military bases — while these are for tactical use, like hitting this hill or that ridge as part of an imminent assault.

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It's the big man himself, checking his maps and giving his guidance during a nighttime launch of a single-rocket "tactical" missile — tactical in the sense that some nuclear weapons are tactical while others are considered strategic. It is almost a certainty that North Korea doesn't have the ability to manufacture a nuclear warhead for a missile of this type, but with another type of WMD — such as chemical weapons or even a plain Jane explosive warhead — the rocket could ruin a lot of things at the point of impact.

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This closer view of the tactical missile launch shows the launch vehicle. These kind of road-mobile launchers caused the US a lot of grief during the 1991 Gulf War; the then-infamous Scud missile is a prototypical example of the type. The oldest models could hit targets more than 100 miles away with about a ton of high explosives; later models improved the range and accuracy. While not anywhere near a precision weapon, they are useful for dropping large explosive payloads on large, sprawling targets. Like cities.

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North Korea maintains a large set of coastal defenses; batteries such as these are basically fixed artillery emplacements intended to fire on ships near shore. During the Korean War, the North Koreans got caught with their strategic pants down when General Douglas MacArthur carried out a major amphibious landing far behind the front lines, cutting the North Korean army off from supply and communications, leading to one of the most dramatic reversals in modern warfare. Since then, North Korea has paid a lot of attention to coastal defenses.

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Since these sorts of positions are fixed and can therefore be easily spotted well in advance of any landing, they would be easy prey for any number of long-range standoff weapons and would have very, very limited survivability in a war. So emplacements like this are really more for show as opposed to being truly useful. Kind of like the advice Kim no doubt doles out during photo ops.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

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