Among the most distinctive and readily identifiable weapons in North Korea’s inventory is the 170mm self-propelled gun, known informally outside North Korea as the “Koksan gun” and assigned the designations of M-1978 and M-1989 – depending on the variant – by the United States military. The 170mm gun is a unique weapon designed and produced solely by the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea beginning in the 1970s. It was one of the world’s longest-ranging artillery pieces and was intended to allow the Korean People’s Army to fire deep into South Korean territory across the Demilitarized Zone. Despite the 170mm self-propelled gun being designed and produced exclusively in the DPRK, Iran has the distinction of being the only country ever to use the weapon in combat, in the Iran-Iraq War.
The Iran-Iraq War was an eight-year war (September 1980-August 1988) for regional dominance between Iran and Iraq. In the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iraq – under the leadership of Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein – launched an invasion of its neighbor and rival Iran in September 1980. The Iraqi leadership was motivated by a combination of factors including Saddam’s desire to supplant Iran as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf region, previous border conflicts with Iran and the fear that the Revolution might inspire insurgency among Iraq’s Shia population.
Saddam expected to take advantage of the relative chaos following 1979 Revolution with a surprise attack. Despite early success, Iraq failed to maintain the initiative and momentum and much of the war was fought mostly on static lines, with heavy reliance on trench warfare, chemical weapons and exchanges of artillery fire, much like the Western Front in the First World War.
During the war, North Korea lent its support to the Islamic Republic of Iran, who had recently become an adversary of North Korea’s greatest adversary, the United States. Iran’s enemy in the war, Iraq, became the new recipient of some support from the United States as a result of their opposition to Iran and the dramatic change in the U.S.-Iran relationship. Although Pyongyang and Tehran established diplomatic relations in 1973 – when Iran was still ruled by the U.S.-backed Shah – DPRK-Iran relations improved considerably after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and Iran’s strong turn toward anti-Americanism under the leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Some of the arms shipped by North Korea are believed to have been purchased by Iran from other communist powers including China, the Soviet Union and some Eastern European countries
The DPRK was a major supplier for Iran during the war, selling the Islamic Republic a variety of arms including small arms, artillery, tanks, Scud-B ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and spare parts. Some of the arms shipped by North Korea are believed to have been purchased by Iran from other communist powers including China, the Soviet Union and some Eastern European countries, with North Korea acting as a conduit and providing some degree of deniability for the other powers. Among other weapons, North Korea is believed to have sold approximately 400 artillery pieces to Iran, including the 170mm self-propelled guns. Pyongyang’s support also included sending around 300 military personnel – likely advisors – to Iran.
SENT TO IRAN
North Korea supplied an unknown number of the original model (designated by the U.S. military as M-1978) of the 170mm gun to Iran by early 1987. This provided Iran with longer ranging artillery than anything they had possessed previously; the longest-ranging cannon-type artillery anywhere in the world at the time. The North Korean-made 170mm guns have an effective range of up to 43 kilometers with conventional munitions and up to 54 kilometers with rocket-assisted projectiles (RAP). Long-range artillery able to fire from beyond the reach of enemy counter-battery fire was of great value in the conflict between Iran and Iraq.
According to Joseph Bermudez, editor of the KPA Journal, the 170mm guns received by the Islamic Republic of Iran Army were likely organized into “army-level independent battalions or regiments” within the Army’s Ground Forces (Artesh in Persian), which could be attached to an army corps when required. The weapon was used by the Iranian Army primarily to conduct long-range strategic strikes against targets deeper within the territory of not only Iraq, but also that of Kuwait.
Among the most strategically valuable territory in the eight-year long war was the Al-Faw Peninsula in Iraq. Located at the southeastern corner of Iraq, between Iran to the northeast and Kuwait to the southwest the al-Faw Peninsula is a marshy region at the northern end of the Persian Gulf adjacent to the Shatt al-Arab waterway, the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It is home to the Iraqi port and naval base of Um Qasr and is the only part of Iraq that borders on the Persian Gulf.
Kuwait actually supported Iraq against Iran during the 1980-88 war
The Peninsula thus was a high-value objective for Iran. The region was captured by Iranian forces in the First Battle of Al-Faw on February 10 and 11, 1986. In Operation Dawn 8, the Iranian Army and the Revolutionary Guard first feigned an offensive on the city of Basra as a diversion before successfully invading the Peninsula, thus holding the only territory in Iraq which bordered on the Persian Gulf. Iranian forces entrenched themselves on the Peninsula after the victory.
Following the battle, Iran capitalized on the seizure of al-Faw. In addition to cutting off Iraq from the Persian Gulf, holding the peninsula put Iranian forces within striking distance of Kuwait. Prior to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 – which led to the liberation of Kuwait and first invasion of Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War – Kuwait actually supported Iraq against Iran during the 1980-88 war. As a result, Iran sought to apply military pressure on – and retaliate against – Kuwait. Iran carried out attacks from the al-Faw Peninsula on Kuwaiti oil tankers and terminals using Chinese-made Silkworm cruise missiles and used the North Korean-made 170mm self-propelled guns positioned there to fire on Kuwait oil fields and facilities, inflicting economic damage upon the country.
CAPTURED BY IRAQ
In the final year of the war, 1988, Iraq would regain control of the al-Faw Pensinula in the Second Battle of al-Faw on April 17, 1988. After diversionary attacks to the north, Iraqi military forces launched an assault on al-Faw during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time when the Iranian military was rotating troops on the front lines and less prepared to repel an offensive. The Iraqi’s bombarded from the air and with artillery using conventional munitions as well as chemical weapons. This combined with amphibious assaults and superior numbers allowed the Iraqi forces to defeat the Iranians and retake al-Faw.
Iranian forces were cleared from the Peninsula within 48 hours and left behind some equipment captured by the Iraqis. Among the weapons the Iraqis captured were some of Iran’s 170mm self-propelled guns. At least one of the North Korean-made artillery pieces was displayed in a victory celebration in Baghdad following the battle.
WASHINGTON TAKES INTEREST
It was here that the 170mm gun was seen by U.S. Army Colonel Gary Nelson, an artillery officer then serving as defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. It was likely the first time an American official laid eyes on the weapon in person. The origin of this gun reportedly was unclear to the Iraqis – its caliber being rather unusual – but it was known to the U.S. military, who had first observed the weapon near the North Korean city of Koksan in 1978 – the city and year being the origin of the U.S. designation (M-1978) and nickname (“Koksan gun”) for the weapon.
U.S. military and intelligence authorities took interest and wanted to learn more about the North Korean-made artillery. One of these weapons was investigated closely by Rick Francona, then a Defense Intelligence Officer working as a U.S. liaison to the Iraqi military. Inspection of the gun, though, provided more than just information about this North Korean weapon; it also revealed something about the Iran-Iraq War. In his book Ally to Adversary, Francona recounts that the gun provided the U.S. with evidence of Iraq’s usage of chemical weapons against Iranian forces at al-Faw, including decontamination fluid and used atropine injectors.
A DIFFERENT CALIBER
The first sighting of the 170mm gun in Iraq and the clues it yielded regarding chemical warfare, however, would not be the last discovery Americans made in the Middle Eastern country related to this weapon. In 2008, during Operation Iraqi Freedom (the second U.S. invasion of Iraq) a U.S. Marine Corps unit operating in the city of Ramadi in Iraq’s western Anbar Province was clearing old Iraqi military vehicles from Al Anbar University when they found an unusual variant of the self-propelled gun. The caliber of this weapon was 180mm, instead of 170mm.
It is possible … that the Iraqi arms industry built or modified this weapon using the 180mm caliber of the S-23 to create a functionally similar weapon
It has never been confirmed if the 180mm gun was produced in North Korea, Iran, or Iraq, and if the weapon was built from scratch in this caliber or was a modification – possibly just a barrel swap – of a previously 170mm gun. The 180mm gun found in Iraq featured what has been described as a “pepper pot” muzzle brake with many round holes in it, quite similar to that of the Soviet-made S-23, but unlike that seen on any North Korean 170mm gun. It is possible – though difficult to verify – that the Iraqi arms industry built or modified this weapon using the 180mm caliber of the S-23 to create a functionally similar weapon. Likely produced in greater numbers than the North Korean 170mm gun, ammunition for the 180mm gun would be easier to obtain for Iraq, especially since neighboring Syria operated the S-23 at the time.
The sale and delivery of the 170mm self-propelled guns to Iran, subsequent usage by Iran, and eventual capture by Iraq together form an uncommon – though not completely unique – example of North Korean-designed weaponry having a significant impact far from the Korean Peninsula. It is unknown if the weapon is still in active service in the Iranian military, though Joseph Bermudez notes that some have been seen in Iranian military parades. It was part of the first major act of military and cooperation between North Korea and Iran which has continued into the present decade, facilitating development of new and improved weapons by both countries. The Iran-Iraq War proved to be the only time so far that the 170mm gun has ever been used in actual combat, serving strategic and political goals of Iran during war. Its subsequent capture gave U.S. authorities a rare opportunity to examine the weapon up-close. This has surely improved understanding of the weapon – designed primarily to fire upon Seoul and other targets in South Korea – by the U.S. and that information has likely been shared with South Korea.
Featured image: 170mm SP gun of the KPA during a firing drill, April 2014 | Photo: KCNA
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