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 Still, with hull armor of only 99mm and a weak 100mm D-10T tank gun, it is heavily outdated.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

Conclusion

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.

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.