ABOVE: Right side view of Type 73 machine gun at the Special Forces display.
Recently there has been an upswing in interest regarding the weapons of North Korea. This is due not only to the current saber rattling in the region and the changing of the leadership, but to how difficult it is to obtain accurate information as well as the disinformation campaigns that have been successfully waged by the North Korean propaganda bureaus. Heebum Hong and Dan Shea have studied the small arms of North Korea for decades and both consider that many of the indigenously made small arms are of very good quality. They have combined their efforts to make this article as inclusive and comprehensive as possible. The article starts with the elusive Type 73 machine gun, and then takes a more organized historical perspective.
The North Korean Type 73 machine gun is probably one of the most unknown mass-produced automatic weapons in the world. Most Communist Bloc firearms stopped being so secret after the fall of the Soviet Union, but North Korean firearms are still hidden behind a shroud. Even within the mist of secrecy regarding North Korean firearms, the Type 73 is still clouded in mystery. Vague pictures showing parts of the Type 73 as soldiers carried them were released from time to time in North Korean propaganda films, but no details were ever released. The Type 73 was occasionally spotted in the surveillance photos taken by South Korean or U.S. forces. The reason for the rarity of sightings is, of course, their obsessive secrecy; so top secret in fact, that most of North Korea’s indigenous weapons have no printed manual. Armorers or mechanics have to learn, memorize, and if one really wants to have some kind of manual to refer to, he has to hand-write one. Manuals like this are one-of-the-kind, and hard to get out of North Korea.
Refugees who escape North Korea via China sometimes have information, but that information might have some problems. Because of the rules of absolute secrecy, even those with long military backgrounds usually can’t figure out what’s going on in any other unit so their information is often limited. Many of those refugees also give exaggerated information because they want to make themselves look more important and essential as a bargaining chip in refugee status, or they believe and parrot the typical North Korean propaganda. South Koreans have learned that if you believe all the stories from refugees from the North, you will believe North Korea is a country that has the world’s strongest army, with enough weapons, the skill, and the will to destroy the rest of the world’s armies altogether. It would be foolhardy to not consider the North Korean military and their special units to be highly trained as well as skilled fighters, but the perspective should be kept to scale – the North Korean military is a regional threat. They also have excellent small arms and good quality equipment for their top tier units as well as clandestine exports.
In such an environment, reliable information about the Type 73 is very hard to come by, but the South Korean army has one sample. Another has been captured from insurgents in Iraq. The South Koreans have not revealed how they got their sample, but there is speculation that after a heavy flood in the North, the dead body of a North Korean soldier might have been found south of the DMZ, with this Type 73 machine gun on a sling attached to the body.
The sample viewed reveals some interesting features. First, the Type 73 is outwardly based upon the Russian PKM machine gun, which is not so surprising; but the feeding system is another matter entirely. The Type 73 uses a dual feeding system, and can utilize either a top mounted magazine, or a side fed metallic belt. This is very peculiar, since it’s using 7.62x54R ammunition, not the 7.62×39 round. This means the Type 73 must use its own special 30 round magazine, not an AK47 magazine (in this case it would have been the North Korean Type 58 or 68 rifles). Even though the Type 73 can be used as a magazine-fed machine gun, the gunner has no option to use a magazine from his comrade riflemen. Thus, the Type 73 is an anomaly.
In fact, weighing more than 10kg (approximately 22.05 lbs), and using a full-power rifle cartridge (not lower powered assault rifle cartridges like the 7.62x39mm), with its quick change barrel configuration, the Type 73 is technically close to a GPMG, rather than what are called squad automatic weapons like the RPD or the MINIMI/M249. South Korean military intelligence assumes that the gun was developed at least partially for the SAW role. Using the larger caliber is considered to be a counter weapon to the U.S. M60 GPMG that was prevalent in U.S. and South Korean forces in the conflict zones. North Korea is quite sensitive over what the U.S. and South Koreans use, and the North Korean analysts have closely studied the Vietnam War. Since no one knows the real reasons, we only can speculate.
The North Koreans decided to make a SAW similar to the M60 GPMG though a puzzling addition is the magazine-fed capability. There are several possible influences on this; many of the North Korean army staff during the 1970s had served in the Chinese army before 1945, and even after that, a considerable number of ZB26 or even Bren LMGs (which were lend-leased to China) were in service in the North Korean army for a while through Chinese support. While box magazine feeding limited the firepower, it’s far more comfortable to carry the weapon with ammunition. Having a 100 round ammo can under a PK or PKM is somewhat cumbersome, but the 30 round magazine lowered weight and was easier to carry and fast to reload. South Korean army analysts consider that the Type 73 gunner would be carrying his machine gun with 30 round magazine inserted, and if a threat appears, fire the ammo from magazine immediately. After the ammo in the magazine is depleted, he can assume a relatively stable shooting position and change his ammo source from magazine to belt, which he carried in his satchel or pouch. This is based on observation and sightings of North Korean Type 73 machine gunners carrying the weapon with a magazine inserted.
One more probable reason for the Type 73’s dual-feed adaptation is North Korea’s affiliation with Czech firearms. North Korea has used many Czech firearms from the 1960s on, especially for special operations. Their behind-the-line operatives’ favorite machine pistol was, and still is, a suppressed Vz61 Skorpion and some CZ82s were found in a North Korean spy’s weapon cache. Most of all, the CZ75 was copied by North Korea and used as the officer’s standard pistol. Rumor says that the late Kim Jung Il, who was an avid gun collector, personally preferred Czech firearms. North Korean firearms developers were clearly influenced by the Czech VZ52 machine gun, another dual-feed weapon which utilizes either belt feed or a top mounted magazine.
Whatever the reason for development, North Korean military leadership was not so impressed with the Type 73; while it could sometimes be seen in 1970s propaganda and at military parades, from the early 1980s it’s been more and more difficult to see one in use. In 1982, the Type 82 machine gun appeared in service. The Type 82 is basically a PKM copy without magazine feeding capability. It seems that many Type 73s were moved to reserve or militia service, but nobody can be sure. The only thing we can confirm is that the Type 82 is much more visible in active duty North Korean army service, while the Type 73 is very rare today.
There’s only one sample each of Type 73 and Type 82 known to the public: a Type 73 is in South Korean Army custody, and a Type 82 is possessed by the Japanese Coast Guard – they recovered one from a North Korean spy ship they sunk in 2002. (One more Type 73 has recently been captured in Iraq.) While the Type 82 is basically a copy of the PKM, you can see some similarity with the Type 73 from its stock, bipod and rear sight.
Lineage of North Korean Firearms
There had been some small production of firearms in the North Korean areas during the 1800s-1946, but it was one-off of early firearm styles. The North Korean military was initially started with Soviet Union supplied rifles – the Mosin-Nagant, the SKS, and small quantities of SVT-40s, as well as a variety of machine guns and handguns. The first weapon manufactured locally was the Type 49 submachine gun, made in 1949. This was a license built copy of the Soviet PPSh-41 or “Pappa-sha.” The North Koreans chose to use the 71-round drums and not the 35-round curved magazines. Speculation is that the ‘Great Leader’, Kim Il Sung, thought the large-capacity drum was intimidating and tactically an advantage. The Type 49 was the main submachine gun of the North Korean army, and they used these extensively during the 1950s Korean War. Their main infantry weapon was the rifle, which was used much more than any submachine gun, but the image of those ‘Burp Guns’ with large drum magazines was so strong, that it became the symbol of the ‘communist intruders’ in South Korea, just like the MP40 became a symbol of Nazi Germany, out of it’s actual proportion of use in the German army.