DPRK upgraded tanks still in use on Syrian battlefield

by Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer, NK News

As the now almost four-year-long Syrian Civil War continues, the full extent of North Korea’s influence in Syria remains seen every day.

Pyonygang and Damascus’ warm relations have led Syria to make several acquisitions of North Korean weaponry in the past. While the Syrian Civil War rages on, the Assad regime, the Islamic State and other factions continue to use much of this equipment in the conflict.

Perhaps the most notable impact of the DPRK’s arms industry on Syria can be found in Syria’s once enormous tank fleet. Namely, the DPRK upgraded hundreds of Soviet-made T-54 and T-55 tanks for Syria in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with some even seeing use in the 1982 Lebanon War.

Although the entire T-54 fleet (including the examples upgraded by North Korea) was presumably retired years ago, the T-55s certainly were not and nowadays a tank spotted in the northern half of Syria shows marks of the DPRK’s military influence more often than not. The T-54s themselves were stored in depots for most of the civil war, but as more and more armor has been destroyed and shortages grow, an increasing number are being brought back into service.

After a large number of tanks were captured at the northern stronghold of Brigade 93 – an armored unit of the 17th Division of the Syrian Arab Army at Raqqa – the Islamic State became a major operator of T-55s upgraded by North Korea, and subsequently used them in the assault on Kobanê. This was not the first case of Pyongyang’s equipment ending up in unintended hands, however, as a MANPADS (man-portable air-defense system) of North Korean manufacture seen at Kshesh airbase testifies.

The fact that the specific tank upgraded was the T-54/55 is remarkable: North Korea’s indigenous tank industry is largely founded on copying and modernizing the later T-62 series main battle tank. In fact, the specific upgrade used in Syria appears to have been developed solely for export as this type has never been sighted in use within the Korean People’s Army.

Still, when one considers the tight bond between the two historical allies and the DPRK’s reliance on income from military exports, it is not entirely surprising that Damascus turned to Pyongyang when it needed its aging tank fleet modernized for a soft price. As declassified documents on conversations held in the embassy of the USSR about a 1973 conference in Pyongyang detail:

“The Deputy Foreign Minister presented a personal message from DPRK President Kim Il Sung to the Syrian President. Orally the Deputy Foreign Minister informed the DPRK is ready to provide Syria with any assistance it may want.

“For 9 October the Syrian ambassador was invited by Deputy Prime Minister Choe Jae-u (Choe Jae U” to come to another conversation. In this talk Choe Jae-u repeated the DPRK willingness to provide every possible assistance to the Arab peoples, including military support in an according fashion.”

Although the offer had no immediate effect on the Syrian Arab Army’s arsenal, it is evident the Syrian government had a change of heart over the following decade.

Features of the upgrade included the installment of North Korean-designed laser rangefinders and some modifications to the turret; some even came equipped with smoke launchers and the legacy 14.5mm KPV heavy machine gun seen on nearly all DPRK’s tanks. Aside from the characteristic laser rangefinder, exclusively seen on North Korean tanks, the KPV is an important giveaway as it is not normally used on the ubiquitous Soviet tank series used in so many countries. It is unknown if Islamic State fighters are able to use the laser rangefinder, as it requires training to operate.

While most of the Syrian tanks saw their KPV removed to be used on pickup trucks, a small portion of the tanks continue to carry it. While the KPV was originally installed to increase the tank’s protection against enemy fighter-bombers and helicopters, it mainly sees use against ground forces nowadays.

Other exports of the DPRK to Syria reportedly included the delivery of heavy artillery systems such as the BM-11 122mm multiple rocket launcher. However, none of these systems have been spotted during the civil war, and it is presumed they have been decommissioned.

With more and more footage emerging from clashing forces within Syria, new weapons systems once exported by North Korea continue to come to light. Whatever effect they may have on the ultimate course of the war, it is certain that even today the influence of the DPRK on conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere is not to be underestimated.

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