Main Battle Tanks in North and South Korea

Given the tense situation in North Korea, no one knows if and when armed conflict will arise. But it is interesting to contemplate how the fights would play out in the case of a war. If it came to ground fighting, tanks would certainly play a crucial role, as they had done in the Korean War in the 1950s.
In this article, I want to look at the Main Battle Tanks (MBT) of the different factions, which would form the core of the ground armies.

North Korea

North Korea has over 5000 MBTs, mostly bought from the Soviet Union and China. These include around

  • 1000 Type-59 – a Chinese version of the Soviet T-54. Produced in 1959 and in service since 1959, they are probably in poor condition and no match for modern tanks
  • 2000 T-55 – an improved version of the T-54 that went into production in 1958 and a great improvement over the IS-2 and IS-3 heavy tanks. Still, with hull armor of only 99mm and a weak 100mm D-10T tank gun, it is heavily outdated.
  • 1000 T-62 – a further development of the T-55 with a 115mm smoothbore gun and improved armor, produced between 1961 and 1975. The improved gun could definitely hurt the South Korean M48 Pattons, but the low rate of fire and bad accuracy mean this tank is not up to current standards either.
  • 1000 Chonma-Ho – a further development of the T-62 by North Korea. Not much is known about this tank, but it was developed in the late 70s and improved several times since then. The gun is probably a copy of the Russian 125mm unit 2A46 and definitely to be taken seriously.

It is also assumed that North Korea has acquired the more recent T-72, but this is purely speculation.

After the the Golf War, when it was obvious that the T-72 employed by the Iraqi army was vastly inferior to the modern M1 Abrams, North Korea began developing their own MBT, the M2002 „Pokpung-ho“ to counter the South Korean K1 (which is based on the M1 Abrams).
It is based on elements of the T-72 and T-62, and uses the same gun as the Chonma-Ho and probably an auto-loader. North Korea currently has around 500 of these tanks, and they could pose a serious threat to the South Korean tanks.

M2002 Pokpung-ho

The M2002 Pokpung-ho Main Battle Tank

South Korea

South Korea has less tanks than North Korea (around 3000 MBT), but they are overall more modern and in better condition and better equipped. South Korea still uses some M48 Pattons (those  were first developed during WWII), that were upgraded in the 1970s with 105mm guns.

They also have T-80-U-UK (a Russian MBT developed around 1985) with a strong 125mm gun and  very good armor.

But the pride of the South Korean military is the K1 (a.k.a. Type 88) – a variant of  the M1 Abrams, developed in 1983 and in service since 1987. It uses a very strong 105mm gun „Royal Ordnance L7” that was first equipped on the British Centurian, and, like the M1 Abrams, a very strong composite armor. North Korean tanks would have a very hard stand against this tank.
The K1 was improved as the K1A1 with the much better Rheinmetall 120mm gun, the same gun also used on the M1A2. This gun has a range of more than 4km and uses M289 depleted uranium shells that can penetrate all North Korean tanks with ease from miles away.

South Korean K1A1

The South Korean K1A1 Main Battle Tank

U.S. Forces in South Korea

The U.S. have their prized M1A2 Abrams stationed in South Korea, which is one of the very best MBT available in the world right now. It has very strong composite armor that is very hard to penetrate (around 1300-1600mm versus HEAT and 940-960mm versus KE). There are very few tanks in the world that can survive a direct confrontation with this tank, and none of those are in possession by the North Korean forces.


In a direct confrontation of ground forces, the North Korean tanks would probably not stand much of a chance against their South Korean and U.S. counterparts. The Chonma-Ho and the M2002 could pose a threat to the older tanks in the South Korean forces, but are still vastly inferior to the modern K1A1 and M1A2 Abrams.
The North Koreans have more tanks, but the U.S. showed in the Golf War that with a smaller force of superior tanks they can absolutely annihilate the enemy (2000 M1A1 then destroyed around 3700 Iraqi tanks without losing one tank to direct enemy fire).
In reality, of course, artillery and airstrikes influence the result of a conflict a lot, but it’s impossible to win a war without ground forces, and in this regard, North Korea would be at a big disadvantage.

The nuclear weapons program of North Korea

Nuclear explosionMost nuclear experts think that North Korea is years away from perfecting the technology to back up its bold threats of a preemptive attack on the United States. But some admit that it might have the know-how to launch a nuclear-tipped missile at South Korea and Japan, both of which host U.S. military bases.

It seems that no one can really tell with any certainty how much technological progress North Korea has made, aside from perhaps a few people close to its secretive leadership. But it is highly unlikely that Pyongyang would launch such an attack, because the retaliation would be devastating.

The North’s third nuclear test was done on Feb. 12 and prompted the most stringent UN Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang. It is now presumed to have advanced its ability to miniaturize a nuclear device. Experts say it’s easier to design a nuclear warhead that works on a shorter-range missile than one which has intercontinental missile capabilities that could target the U.S.

The assessment of David Albright at the Institute for Science and International Security think-tank is that North Korea has the capability to be able to mount a warhead on its Rodong missile, which has an ability to reach of 1,280 kilometers and could hit South Korea and most of Japan. But he cautioned in his analysis, published after the latest nuclear test, that it is an uncertain estimate, and the warhead’s reliability remains unclear.

Albright contends that the experience of Pakistan could be offered as a precedent. Pakistan bought the Rodong from North Korea after its first flight test in 1993, then adapted and produced it for its own use. Pakistan, which conducted its first nuclear test in 1998, is said to have taken less than 10 years to miniaturize a warhead before that test, Albright said.

North Korea also obtained technology from the trafficking network of A. Q. Khan, a disgraced pioneer of Pakistan’s nuclear program, acquiring centrifuges for enriching uranium. According to the Congressional Research Service, Khan may also have supplied a Chinese-origin nuclear weapon design he apparently provided to Libya and Iran, which could have helped the North in developing a warhead for a ballistic missile.

Siegfried Hecker from Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, has visited North Korea on seven different occasions and was granted unusual access to its nuclear facilities. He is very skeptical that North Korea has advanced that far in the miniaturization of a nuclear device. He said recently that “Nobody outside of a small elite in North Korea really knows for sure” in an emailed response to questions from The Associated Press. “I agree that we cannot rule it out for one of their shorter-range missiles, but we simply don’t know. “

The bottom line is that the nuclear capabilities of North Korea are difficult to assess accurately. “Thanks to A. Q. Khan, they certainly have designs for such a device that could fit on some of their short or medium-range missiles”, said Hecker, who last visited the North in November 2010. “But it is a lengthy road they need to travel to having a design and having the confidence that the North can put a warhead on a missile and get it to survive the thermal and mechanical stresses during launch and along its entire trajectory.”

The differing opinions underscore a fundamental problem in assessing a country as isolated as North Korea, particularly its weapons programs, because irrefutable proof is hard to come by. A good example is that the international community remains largely in the dark about the latest underground nuclear test. Although it caused a magnitude 5.1 tremor, no gases escaped, and experts say there was no way to evaluate whether a plutonium or uranium device was detonated. Those information would help reveal whether North Korea has managed to produce highly enriched uranium, giving it a new source of fissile material, and help determine the type and sophistication of the North’s warhead design.

This guessing game about the North’s nuclear weapons program goes back for decades. Albright said that in the early 1990s, the CIA estimated that North Korea had a “first-generation” design for a plutonium device that was to be deployed on the Rodong missile – although it’s not clear what information that estimate was based on.

“Given that it has been 20 years since the deployment of the Rodong, an assessment that North Korea has successfully developed a warhead able to be delivered by that missile is reasonable”, Albright wrote. According to Nick Hansen, a retired intelligence expert who continues to closely monitor developments in the North’s weapons programs, the Rodong missile was first flight-tested in 1993. Pakistan claims to have reengineered the missile and successfully tested it, although doubts apparently persist about its reliability.

Whether North Korea has also figured out how to combine the missile with a nuclear warhead has major ramifications not just for South Korea and Japan, but also for the U.S., which counts those nations as its principal allies in Asia and retains 80,000 troops in the two countries.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said that the North’s nuclear threats are less worthy of attention than the prospects of a miscalculation leading to a conventional war. He added that “North Korea understands that a serious attack on South Korea or any other U.S. interests is going to be met with overwhelming force. It would be near suicidal for the regime.”

North Korean armed forces and the South Korean counterpart


North Korean Armed Forces

The bitter conflict that has been going on between the North and the South Korean Peninsula is something that started over 50 years ago. It began with the declaration of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in the Korean war along the line drawn between these two countries (the 38th parallel).

North Korea has amassed large and formidable conventional military forces that are all gathered within 100km of the DMZ and look like they could very easily launch an invasion of South Korea. With more than 1.1 million troops and over 20 000 pieces of military equipment plus more than a million landmines and highly fortified defensive positions all packed in striking distance of the richest city in the South called Seoul.

North Korea has 4.7 million reserves which makes it the world’s fifth biggest active army. Officially the annual defense budget is $1.5bn, which is 25% of the total government spending (around $6bn). Pyongyang is the closest city to the DMZ on the North side and has 150 active duty brigades that include 27 infantry divisions and 15 armored brigades.

There are over 20 different known tunnels that go under the DMZ and more than 4000 underground facilities. All the T-62s and the 10 000 artillery pieces could be rapidly put into fortified positions, including 20 Special Forces brigades with more than 88 000 troops ready to react.

If we consider the guided missiles of South Korea and the active force of 655 000 troops it looks like a grenade without a pin in it. The forces of the South make it all the more vital because of the proximity of Seoul to the DMZ.‎ The reserve force of the South Korean army is 3.9 million and the option of launching a preemptive strike is now gone, according to some experts.

The USA and South Korea have been together since 1950 when the USA started installing capitalism into the country. The fighting of the Korean War (1950-1953) was something that tore the country apart geographically, ideologically and politically.

The question about the preparedness for the USA to respond to a preemptive strike by North Korea is something that has still to be tested. The fact that the USA will respond to a strike on South Korea is assumed by all of the politicians involved.

There is not only many billions of dollars involved in the South Korean country but there have been highly profitable trade relations going on between the two countries for decades. There is simply too much to lose for the US government and they would rally to support the South, no matter the cost.

The North Korean armed forces and the South Korean counterpart that have been at another’s throats for over fifty years have reached a point where relations between the two are tilting on a very fine edge. It certainly looks like the North could and would attack Seoul and capture it completely before the USA would have time to react.

There is an argument that this is the strategy the North will use, to capture Seoul to negotiate a peace settlement with the USA. The point is that the constantly changing dynamics going on at the 38th parallel is something that could explode at any minute.

Is the leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un dealing in drugs?

Kim Jong-un (born 8 January 1983 or 1984) is the supreme leader of North Korea, the son of Kim Jong-il (1941–2011) and the grandson of Kim Il-sung (1912–1994). This 30 year old man has been accused of many different crimes, not the least of which is drug smuggling.

It may sound very strange that a political leader would ever be accused of smuggling drugs but the Kim family are used to getting speculation coming from the west. The family has been notoriously secretive throughout the years that his father and his grandfather have ruled North Korea.

All the details about the workings of the nation’s government have always been completely protected. The secrecy even went farther as the press never knew how many children Kim Jong Il had as well as what they were up to and who would rule when he died, have always been secretly guarded and hidden from the rest of the world. The regime has always guarded even seemingly inconsequential information.

Rumor still continues as they fiercely protect their privacy. While Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, have been rumored to have two children, the regime has never confirmed this information. The problems are getting worse and South Korea are now completely convinced that Kim Jong Un is smuggling drugs.

According to the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, Kim Jong-un has set up his own drug ring and reinvented himself as Mr Big. The newspaper is very specific about its story. Saying that North Korea sent a large amount of illegal drugs to its embassy in an East European country last December and ordered diplomats there to sell it for cash by early April, a diplomatic source here claims.

The same diplomatic source says that North Korea has ordered each diplomat to raise US$300,000 to prove their loyalty and mark the birthday of nation founder Kim Il-sung on April 15. Obviously none of this could be verified but one thing is for sure is that the Kim family does not play by the rules.

Recently a field agent-turned-defector said that each North Korean diplomatic mission overseas is required to send back around $100,000 to the North each year. There have been complaints lodged by most embassies around the world that the new leader Kim Jong-un is too demanding.

North Korea produces the high quality narcotics at state-run factories in Chongjin and Heungnam and its narcotics are so renowned for their purity that they are in high demand across the globe. Authorities estimate North Korea’s annual output of illicit drugs amount to 3,000 kg that translate into revenues of between $100 million and $200 million.

It certainly feels cruelly ironic that North Korea is now China’s number 1 source of crystal meth – one socialist state pushing drugs to another. It could be a big concern for the world that this 30 year old all-powerful leader is in fact keeping his country alive by giving drugs to the innocent poor.

The North and South Korea Conflict continues

Border between North and South KoreaThe conflict between North and South Korea is something that has been going on since the Korean war ended in 1953. The Korean Peninsula was occupied by and ruled by several different dynasties, as well as the Japanese and the Chinese. From 1910 to 1945 for example, Korea was controlled by the Japanese and it was mostly controlled from Tokyo as a part of the Empire of Japan.

The conflict all started after the WWII war ended as the peninsula of Korea north of the 38th parallel was occupied by the USSR and south of the 38th parallel was given to the Allies at the Potsdam Conference where it specified that the USA would administer the South and the USSR the North.

With these two vastly different ideologies sharing a border it was only a matter of time before conflict started. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and almost immediately the United Nations member states began to send aid to South Korea.

North Korea was however quickly advanced south and in November, Chinese forces joined North Korean forces and the fighting was then moved back south and in January 1951, South Korea’s capital, Seoul was taken. The main conflict areas were on the 38th parallel but the problem was reaching an agreement.

In July 1953 an Armistice Agreement was signed by the Korean People’s Army, the Chinese People’s Volunteers and the United Nations Command, which was led by the U.S. It is important to note that South Korea never signed the agreement and to this day an official peace treaty has never been signed between North and South Korea.

The tensions between the North and the South have always been full of anything ranging from assassination attempts to sinking of a warship as recently seen in 2010. Korea claims that North Korea sunk the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea off the South Korean island of Baengnyeong. North Korea denied responsibility for the attack and tensions between the two nations continues to remain high.

Recently there have been some threatening gestures from both the North and the South. North Korean state media said that Pyongyang had carried through with a threat to cancel the 60-year-old armistice that ended the Korean War, as it and South Korea staged dueling war games amid threatening rhetoric that has risen to the highest level since North Korea rained artillery shells on a South Korean island in 2010.

There continues to be a build-up of resentment between the two countries as the North continue to get angry at the South’s joint military drills with the United States and recent U.N. sanctions, Pyongyang has piled threat on top of threat, including vows to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. Seoul has responded with tough talk of its own and has placed its troops on high alert.

There is a lot of history when it comes to the potential conflict looming between the North and the South. Every day there is more rhetoric thrown out which only makes negotiations more difficult. It seems like a brewing of a war that could erupt in just a few hours with both parties on a hair trigger.