North Korea, located in the centre of the Korean Peninsula, possesses a remarkable collection of armoured vehicles, including the renowned Soviet-era T-34/85 and the domestically produced Chonma-ho and Pokpung-ho main battle tanks. These powerful machines have played a crucial role in shaping North Korea’s military might and remain the backbone of its armoured divisions. This article takes a look into the world of North Korea’s tank fleet, delving into their history, capabilities, and the pivotal part they play in the country’s defence strategy.
Tanks in North Korea
The T-34/85, a medium tank that originated from the Soviet era of World War II, proved to be a significant addition to North Korea’s military arsenal. This tank, boasting a 76.2 mm tank gun and 60-degree sloped armour, possessed greater firepower and offered improved protection against anti-tank weapons compared to its contemporaries. The T-34/85 played a pivotal role in the Eastern Front conflict and left a lasting impact on tank design. It remained the backbone of the Soviet tank forces until the mid-1950s and continued to be utilized as a training platform for crews until the 1970s. Interestingly, the T-34 entered service in the USSR in 1947 and to this day, it remains in active use as a main battle tank variant in certain countries. Following World War II, the production of tanks continued on a large scale, leading to remarkable technological advancements. Leveraging their surplus of World War II tanks, the Soviets were able to supply North Korea with these armoured vehicles, thereby bolstering their military capabilities.
The T-55, a Soviet main battle tank, was developed after the Second World War as a derivative of the T-54B. Its primary purpose was to counter the American M60 tank. With estimated production numbers ranging from 96,500 to 100,000, the T-55 series holds the record for being the most-produced tank in history. Although it has been replaced by newer models like the T-62, T-64, T-72, T-80, and T-90 in the Soviet and Russian armies, it continues to be utilized by approximately 50 other armies worldwide.
In the case of North Korea, the T-55 is among the tanks acquired from the Soviet Union. The country currently possesses around 3,500 medium and light tanks, including approximately 2,000 T-54/55 main battle tanks³. It is believed that North Korea still employs the T-55 and Type 59 Tanks¹. These tanks can be equipped with spaced armour to counter HEAT warheads¹. Additionally, North Korea has received and manufactured T62M tanks (Ob’yekt 166M), which are extensively modernized versions of the T-62 featuring enhanced protection, mobility improvements, and the “Volna” fire control system¹. These tanks have undergone various upgrades¹. This demonstrates how North Korea has utilized the T-55 and its variants to strengthen its armoured capabilities.
The Type 59 tank is a Chinese rendition of the Soviet T-54A tank. It was first manufactured in 1958 and was officially commissioned in 1959. Serial production began in 1963, and by the time production ceased in 1985, over 10,000 tanks had been produced. The Chinese military had approximately 5,500 of these tanks in service. North Korea has a significant number of tanks, including 2,000 T-54/55 main battle tanks and an estimated 175 Chinese Type 59 tanks. The Type 59 is widely used in North Korea, with numerous variations developed there. This demonstrates how North Korea has utilized the Type 59 and its variations to enhance its armoured capabilities.
The Chonma-ho, also known as Ch’ŏnma-ho, is a main battle tank design that is indigenous to North Korea and shrouded in secrecy. The original Ch’ŏnma-ho was based on the Soviet T-62, and there are at least five different operational versions of the tank. Over the years, the Ch’ŏnma-ho has undergone several extensive upgrades, making it one of the more numerous and modern tank offerings in the North Korean Army. The Second Machine Industry Bureau began designing the Chonma-ho as early as the 1970s, with an initial order placed in 1976. Production, which was also handled by SMIB, officially began in 1980, and by 1989, around 470 units had been delivered to the North Korean Army. Despite the high production costs of the upgraded Ch’ŏnmas, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) still maintains early production Ch’ŏnmas with small upgrades in service to this day. This is to bolster the ranks of the KPA in case of a massive attack through the DMZ, highlighting the importance of the Ch’ŏnma-ho and its variants in North Korea’s armoured capabilities.
The Pokpung-ho, also referred to as the Chonma-215 and Chonma-21 were North Korean main battle tanks that were developed during the 1990s. It is believed that this tank incorporates technology from the T-62, T-72, and Ch’onma-ho MBTs. The first Pokpung-ho tank is thought to have been manufactured in 1992 at the Ryu Kyong-su Tank Factory in Sinhung, South Hamgyong province. The name “Pokpung-ho” translates to “Storm Tiger” in Korean, and on February 16, 2002, it underwent performance trials. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, North Korea is believed to have obtained decommissioned T-72s and acquired core technology for the Pokpung-ho through reverse engineering. Additionally, it is speculated that North Korea obtained three T-80 samples from Afghanistan in the early 1990s. The Pokpung-ho has demonstrated significant improvements compared to the Ch’onma-ho. Its hull shape, silhouette, and characteristics resemble a modified T-62 chassis, with a lightweight, low profile, well-sloped frontal armour, and classic compartmentation. The turret, in particular, features distinctive wedge-shaped armour modules that can be upgraded, including Composite Armour, modelled after the early T-72M.