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Controversy re-emerges over reliability of Korean howitzer

The explosion of a self-propelled howitzer that killed South Korean soldiers last week has sparked controversy over the reliability of the weapon system designed to counter North Korea’s long-range artillery units across the border.

Two South Korean soldiers were killed and five injured in an explosion inside a K-9 Thunder during artillery training Friday in Cheorwon, Gangwon Province. The training was designed to improve the accuracy of counter-artillery attacks in the event of a war with North Korea.

Although the exact cause of the explosion is still under investigation, the blast appears to have been caused by the explosive that is used to propel artillery shells toward targets, said the South Korean Army on Monday, citing accounts by those injured.

“For reasons unknown, there was smoke inside the howitzer’s breach block assembly,” an Army official said under the customary condition of anonymity. “According to our on-site investigation, three rounds of explosive were completely burned down without any trace.”

The Army decided to halt K-9 artillery firing for training purposes until it finds the exact cause of the explosion. In the meantime, the military will soon establish a comprehensive investigative panel consisting of government officials and civilian experts.

South Korea self-propelled Howitzer K-9 engages in a live-fire exercise. Yonhap
South Korea self-propelled Howitzer K-9 engages in a live-fire exercise. Yonhap

Developed by local defense manufacturer Samsung Techwin, which was renamed Hanhwa Techwin after being sold off in 2014, the K-9 was touted as a high-quality artillery unit for its long range and high rate of firing. The Defense Acquisition Program Administration signed export deals with Turkey, Poland, Finland and India.

But the performance of the K-9 came under scrutiny when two howitzers suffered malfunctions when they were engaged against North Korea’s artillery during Pyongyang’s 2010 bombardment of Yeonpyongdo, an island in the West Sea close to the border with the North.

“The K-9 artillery is a crucial part of our ground combat assets. But we continue to see the weapon system suffer from technical malfunctions and accidents,” said Rep. Lee Hae-hoon, chair of the conservative opposition Bareun Party on Monday.

According to a parliamentary inquiry in 2016, there have been more than 1,700 reports of malfunctions with the K-9 artillery over the past five years. Currently, about 500 K-9 are fielded since its prototype was produced in 1999.

But some analysts noted that the opposition party should refrain from dismissing the K-9 as a dysfunctional weapon system, saying that it is too early to tell whether the explosion was caused by a technical issue.

Following its setback during the Bombardment of Yeonpyeong, the K-9 received a series of modifications to reduce its rate of malfunction. Separately, the military revealed a plan last week to improve the K-9’s performance, including the development of an automated loading system, similar to a robotic turret.

Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Security and Defense Forum, said the frequency of malfunctions that the K-9 has suffered is “not unusual,” noting the number is pretty much the same as that of malfunctions when driving a car.

“More than 1,000 K-9s have been produced and they suffered from 1,700 malfunctions over the past five years. It means that every K-9 suffers from about two cases of malfunction every five years. If you drive your car for five years, you might see a similar number of malfunctions,” Yang said.

By Yeo Jun-suk (