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 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 Still, with hull armor of only 99mm and a weak 100mm D-10T tank gun, it is heavily outdated.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.
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.
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.