Solving the Mystery: Where Did North Korea Get Its Missiles?
A foreign government, or a nonstate actor?
Key Point: There are multiple possabilities, some more likely than others.
In the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, much of North Korea’s conventional-weapons capability has quietly aged into obsolescence. Abandoned by the now-defunct Soviet Union and China, Pyongyang’s arsenal of tanks, ships, planes and artillery appears trapped in the 1980s—or earlier. A few weapons, however, including a new antiship missile fired just last week, are fairly new, prompting questions as to exactly where they came from.
After the Korean War, the Korean People’s Army was rebuilt with Soviet and Chinese weapons. Wartime T-34 tanks were replaced with Soviet-built T-62 and T-55 tanks in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a large fleet of seventy-seven Romeo-class submarines was purchased from China. Pyongyang bought from both countries, favoring one over the other as the political winds blew. One of the country’s last major purchases was a fleet of seventeen MiG-29 “Fulcrum” multirole fighters and thirty-six Su-25 Frogfoot attack jets.
The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the East Asian dictatorship without a patron that dispensed weapons on easy credit terms, and the lack of modern gear is telling. North Korea’s latest tanks are still based on the T-62, and Romeo-class submarines, one of which Kim Jong-un famously took for a ride in 2014, are still in active service. Occasional upgrades, such as the addition of Bulsae (“Firebird”) antitank missiles to the Chonma-ho main battle tank, do little to upgrade the combat effectiveness of what is in reality an obsolete tank.
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