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The Old and Problematic North Korean Tanks

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.


The people of North Korea always see their Great Leader as a deity, rather than a head of state. Yet if disagreeing will cause you more than prison sentence, the people have no choice. And if Kim Jong-un is a deity, then his power is not absolute. Because he can’t even use his omnipotence to improve his impoverished kingdom. For one thing, sanctions, rampant corruptions, and good old tyranny are taking their tolls in the said country. And the state of their armed forces is a great indicator.

North Korea spent a huge amount on their military force, and it boasts a sizeable strength in terms of numbers. In fact, the Korean People’s Amry ranks as the second largest military organization in the world. Capabilities include conventional warfare, cyber warfare, and its recently acquired nuclear weapons. Indeed, the KPA is a serious threat, yet beyond the fearsome façade is the fact that most of its weapons belonged to antique surplus stores. The North Korean air force consists mostly of cold-war era aircrafts, manned by poorly trained and inexperienced pilots. In fact, it was said that the lack of air power is behind Kim Jong-un's obsessions with nuclear weapons.

On the ground, the showcase of Kim’s tank forces is like going back in time. Like the air force, the North Korean armors are killer museum pieces. Relics of the old age that can’t compete with modern armored cavalries.

What Ukraine Taught Us

Wreckage of a Russian tank.

Wreckage of a Russian tank.

Russia’s botched assault on Kyiv seems to send a message to any armed forces in the world. Those armored convoys, no matter how large and powerful they look are still vulnerable. The Ukrainian forces' daring and fierce resistance paid off well, by basically reducing a part of the Russian convoy to wrecks. Tactics like drone attacks, ambushes, and blowing up the lead vehicles to cause a traffic jam, and portable anti-tank weapons proved devastating to the Russian side.

Poor planning never helped either.

It became clear that the army was in disarray when they sent out their tanks, and the messed-up logistics and lack of air defense were just the beginning. But perhaps, it was the tanks themselves that was the problem. The Russian approach to tank design was to put the ammunition under the turret, behind the driver, and under the feet of the turret crews. Hence it won’t take an armor piercing round to obliterate the tank itself.

Then there are weapons like the Javelin, the bane of Russian tanks. So much so that soldiers are forced to equip their vehicles with ludicrous, and ineffective cage thingies on the top of their turrets.

Back in the North Korean side, Kim should take cues on the fate of the Russian convoy in Ukraine. For one thing, the North Korean army is using soviet style war doctrine. They also use the same Russian designs on their tanks. The destruction of the convoy is a grim reminder that Kin should be cautious with his actions, considering that his tank forces are old and obsolete.

Kim's Less Than Modern Tanks

North Korea still operates WW2 tanks.

North Korea still operates WW2 tanks.

Just after the Korean war, DPRK became the customer of the Soviet Union and China when it comes to tanks. This resulted to a large tank division. The problem here is that this large armored cavalry operates machine that dates back in the Second World War, like the T-34. During the Korean war, Soviet trained Korean soldiers rode into battle in their T-34/85, and at present, Chinese Type 62 and 69 tanks are also included in their tank inventory. Other tank models include the vintage T-55 and T-62.

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Obviously, these ancient vehicles won’t stand a chance against the more advance western tanks. When the unthinkable happens, and DPRK decided to choose violence, tank formations will rush towards the heavily fortified DMZ, and as expected there will be massive casualties in the North Korean side. The more modern South Korean amors, and the U.S. made Abrams are too much for these vintage tanks to handle. And the world saw how the Javelin antitank weapon earned its legendary status in Ukraine. Then, there is the fact that both the U.S. and South Korea own gunships, like the Apache, while there is a good reason why the A-10 attack plane is glorified by vets.

North Korea probably knew it had problematic tank divisions, and its attempt to be self-reliant resulted to some domestically produced tanks, which people saw as just retooled Soviet tanks.

The Chonma-ho

Chonma-ho tanks in a military parade.

Chonma-ho tanks in a military parade.

During the 80s, North Korea developed the Chonma-ho (meaning pegasus). Its main gun is a 115-millimeter smoothbore, and it also carries other assortment of weapons, like anti-aircraft machine guns and coaxial guns. Though a threat to infantry fighting vehicles, it can’t stand its ground against the more advanced K2 Black Panther tanks of South Korea and the Abram. The problem here is the Chonma-ho is just a localized T-62, with its gun not powerful enough to pierce the armor of modern tanks. What’s more, its armor is insufficient to protect itself against the firepower of South Korean Tanks, or the Abram.

But the ancient Chonma-ho isn’t the only domestically produced tank in Kim’s inventory.

The "Storm Tiger"

The Pokpung-ho tank.

The Pokpung-ho tank.

Enter the Pokpung-ho (storm tiger), North Korea’s newer main battle tank. It was developed in the 90s, but was only seen by the world in 2009 to 2010, and during a tank competition in 2017 with Kim Jong-un himself as observer. Its most recent model is the Pokpung-ho IV. And with DPRK being poorer country, with less access to tank technology developments, the Pokpung-ho is basically just a retrofitted Soviet-era tank. It was described as North Korean attempt to recreate the T-72 with T-62 parts, though the turret armor in the frontal area saw an improvement. For weapons, it uses a 125-millimeter main gun, plus machine guns and coaxial guns.

A North Korean article boasted that the Pokpung-ho has the “most terrible firepower in the world.” If that article is true, it would surpass the Abram and the Blank Panther. Yet its main gun lacks the power to even penetrate the frontal armor of both tanks, while the high cost of tungsten means that tanks never carried armor piercing shells.

During the 2017 tank competition, the Pokpung-ho was observed to be heavily armed with twin machine gun mounts, twin anti-tank missile launchers and surface to air missiles. It seems that these are North Korea’s attempt to negate the western tanks advantages over their vehicles, though observers doubt it will work. Given the abysmal performance of Russian tanks back in the Gulf Wars and Ukrainian War against western weaponries, North Korea’s “Storm Tiger” might find itself at a disadvantage.

And that explains why Kim is so obsessed with nuclear weapons. Given the state of his army, nukes are the only weapon he could rely on. And do note that North Korea is boasting another newer tank, though people doubt it’s even a working model.


1. Larson, Caleb (26 July 2021). "North Korea's Has 4,000 Ancient Tanks Ready to Fight America". National Interest.

2. Mizokami, Kyle (7 January 2022). "Weak and Pathetic: North Korea’s Tanks Have Some Serious Problems". National Interest.

3. Mizokami, Kyle (23 June 2021). "No, North Korea’s Tank Isn’t the Best in the World. Not Even Close." Popular Mechanics.

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