Key Point: The guns might be powerful, but take North Korean assessments with skepticism.
Seoul has to cope with an unusual urban planning program for a huge, modern metropolis: the northern side of the capital lies little more than thirty miles from the border of North Korea, within range of hundreds of enemy artillery pieces—a zone that Pyongyang has threatened to turn into a “sea of fire.” City planners have gamely built more than twenty-three square kilometers of bomb shelters in the South Korean capital as a precaution.
While the growing threat posed by Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles, potentially with nuclear armament, is of greater concern, the effects of a sustained deluge of high explosive or chemical shells on a city with a population of ten million—greater than New York City—is still hair-raising to consider.
However, only a small number of North Korean artillery systems have the long reach to threaten Seoul from across the DMZ. Chief among them are North Korea’s five hundred enormous 170-millimeter Koksan self-propelled guns. The combat-tested system can fling shells at targets as far as thirty-seven miles away when using rocket-assisted projectiles.
The Koksan is a throwback to a class of enormous long-range guns that proliferated in the first half of the twentieth century, with a mission of cracking open the heaviest fortifications and hitting high-value targets well behind the front lines, such as ammunitions dumps, headquarters, logistical chokepoints and enemy artillery batteries. In the 1950s, these heavy guns were increasingly deployed on lightly armored self-propelled carriages, and also acquired the role of firing tactical nuclear munitions. However, systems such as the American 175-millimeter M107 and 203-millimeter M110 were phased out of service, because their mission was superseded by the use of air strikes, tactical missiles and even improved munitions used by smaller 155-millimeter artillery.