- T-54/55, Type 59
North Korean T-55 MBT
T-54/55, including its various variants, is, without argue, the tank with the largest production number on earth. Since its introduction, around 86000 to 100000 have been produced. Sources indicate that the Korean People's Army (KPA) today has around 2000 of these tanks in service. The operating numbers of each variant is controversial, but one clear fact is that, being a post-WWII MBT, it is completely obsolete by today's standards, and their age poses great difficulty to the maintenance, given their already poor condition. The last time North Korea had obtained these tanks was in 1992. Today, they are no match to South Korean K1A1 and American M1A1 MBTs.
Armour-wise, the thickest part on the turret is 203mm RHA (Rolled Homogeneous Armour). The hull is only 99mm thick. ERAs, which are commonly fitted on modern tanks, are not applied. Due to their poor condition, this type of tank has long been absent from North Korea's frequent military parades.
The 100mm main gun loses in every aspect when compared to current 120mm and 125mm guns. At a range of 1000m, its AT rounds can penetrate approximately 300mm of RHA, provided that they did not miss.
T-54 (Type 59)s and T-55s can be differentiated from appearance by the presence of semi-sphere ventilation devices on their turrets.
Chinese Type 59
The semi-sphere ventilation device is on the top of the turret, in front of the MG
Model of a North Korean T-62
In the early 1960s, American engineers installed a 105mm main gun on their newly-developed M60 MBT. As a response, the Soviets developed a 115mm gun, and placed it on an improved version of T-55, the T-62. Its armour is slightly thicker compared to that of the T-55: 242mm for the turret, 102mm for the hull. This resulted in a slight increase in weight. Retaining the same engine, the mobility has decreased as a result. My opinion is that the T-62 has no huge improvement over the T-54/55 except for the main gun.
According to some sources, North Korea had obtained about 500 T-62s from the USSR before the year 1980. After which it began production of key parts in its own plants and used them to assemble more T-62s and variants, including the Chong'ma-ho.
As of 2011, an estimated number of 2000 T-62 and variants are in service in the KPA.
This type of tank is rather interesting to study. It is commonly agreed that they are built on the chassis of the T-62, but incorporates many North Korean technologies. Five variants have been witnessed by keen journalists and fans, each one possessing improvements over the previous. On the turret, ERAs are installed on both front and back. A laser range finder and IR searchlight can also be found. Early versions of the Chong'ma-ho retained the 115mm gun from the T-62. Pictured below are Chong'ma-ho's on parade on the 60th Anniversary of the Worker's Party of North Korea.
Chong'ma- ho's are regarded as advanced tanks in North Korea, and are thus allocated to elite units of the KPA. Such units will act as spearheads in case of invasion of South Korea begins.
Many assume that North Korea has acquired more recent T-72 and T-90 tanks. This assumption is based on the fact that several Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or former Warsaw Pact countries had these models in stock. North Korea might have obtained these tanks, together with samples of ERAs, for research. North Koreans are fairly familiar with the technologies of the T-62, including the chassis and engine. Through a process of reverse engineering, engineers are able to install parts of later tanks, i.e., 125mm smooth bore gun, ERA, newer FCS, and high-power Diesel engines, on the already familiar T-62s. This provided a cost-effective way to unlock the potential of the old T-62.
Nevertheless, it is without doubt that the T-62 is way outdated. Even the later T-72s did not stand a chance against M1 MBTs in the Gulf War. The combat effectiveness of Iraqi troops are seriously affected by low morale and lack of training. In serious shortage of petrol and food, it is a question whether normal combat training and exercises are still regularly taking place in North Korea. At least one can get some clues from the increasing number of abandoned jets on the airfields due to lack of maintenance.
Pok'pung-ho form the right side
First discovered by journalists and military fans outside North Korea in the year 2002, this type of MBT was thus named as M-2002. Early production models can be traced back to the 1990s. This was a rather turbulent time for many communist countries: the USSR had dissolved, politics were unstable in Eastern Europe, many governments had been overthrown and replaced. During this period, American troops began the invasion of Iraq, also known as Operation Desert Storm. The poor performance of Iraqi T-72 tanks when resisting American troops shocked many of its operators. With the knowledge of K1 MBTs being allocated to South Korean armoured corps, North Korea began reflecting on its own armoured forces and tank tactics. Studies on three types of Soviet tanks, namely the T-72, T-80, and the T-90, had been carried out. Some sources claim that North Koreans had also acquired samples of Chinese Type 88 tanks for studying purposes.
The chassis and engine of the Pok'pung-ho are identical to that of the T-72, except for a slightly increased length and an additional pair of road wheels. Early models are equipped with 2A20 115mm main guns, which was later upgraded to the 125mm 2A46. Later models had composite armour and ERA specifically designed. A 14.5mm MG is installed on the top of the turret, which also houses four smoke grenade launchers on each side.
Pok'pung-ho in parade
The appearance and build quality of these tanks seem rather obsolete compared to tanks of the same era. No additional armour is installed to protect the road wheels and most parts of the tracks, as well as the engine hood, making it prone to personal AT weapons. On some models, a thin plate of armour is installed in front of the lower hull, which leads to premature explosion of incoming AT shells before they impact on the main armour.
A Pok'pung-ho during exercise
Currently, no photos of the interior have been leaked. The Pok'pung-ho is likely to be equipped with an autoloader similar to that of the T-72, as well as a Fire Control System. Russian 125mm 2A46 guns are capable of firing Anti-tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs), thus it is safe too assume that the Pok'pung-ho possesses the same ability. It is also clearly shown in the photos that certain parts of the Fire Control System are not effectively integrated, such as the laser rangefinder and infrared searchlight.
The South Korean K1A1 MBT, which is slightly smaller in size compared to the M1A1 Abrams
K1A1 MBTs during winter exercise
The production has been fairly slow due to economic hardships and the nuclear programme. Around 200 of these tanks are currently in service in the KPA, all of which are allocated to the elite 105th armoured division. This spearhead unit operates both the Chong'ma-ho and the Pok'pung-ho.