North Korea (1980s-today)
Self-Propelled anti-aircraft gun – Unknown numbers (mass-produced)
Ever since the creation of the Korean People’s Army as the standing force of the North Korean state in 1948, the army had to deal with the threat of a US-supported South. The Republic of Korea, or South Korea, would typically benefit from air superiority due to the large involvement of the US Air Force on their side. As early as the pre-1950 build-up, some primitive self-propelled anti-aircraft guns could be found in the form of GAZ-AAs trucks armed with 12.7 mm machine guns.
The rise of indigenous North Korean self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery would mostly start in the 1970s though. During this time, due to a large build-up of North Korea’s military industry that was started by the local production or assembly of T-55s and PT-76s, North Korea was starting to diversify its production. It introduced a number of indigenous designs based on whatever Soviet or Chinese technology was available. Though a first self-propelled anti-aircraft gun was found in the form of the M1978, made on the hull of the Tokchon series of self-propelled artillery pieces and mounting two 37 mm Type 65 autocannons of Chinese origins, this was only a fairly primitive vehicle. Somewhat more advanced vehicles would be manufactured in the coming years – the M1985 being the first of a series of vehicles based on the hull of the Soviet ZSU-23-4 Shilka.
North Korea and the ZSUs: a complex and misunderstood relationship
The operation of the Soviet Union’s self-propelled anti-aircraft guns by North Korea – both the ZSU-57-2 and the ZSU-23-4 – is an often misunderstood subject. North Korea does not actually appear to have operated any of the two types in massive numbers. There is no tangible evidence of North Korea having even operated the ZSU-57-2 at all. Though a rumor states North Korea received 250 ZSU-57-2 turrets, which it mounted on Chinese Type 59 hulls, there have never been any solid sources backing such a claim up, nor photographic evidence, and this is likely a myth. The ZSU-57-2 was certainly known by North Korean engineers, and it appears to have inspired the M1985 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns in some ways, but it may have never set track on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea is, however, known to have received a small number of ZSU-23-4 Shilkas from the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. There exists some very limited photographic evidence of these Shilkas, and only a small number were likely received. They did, however, have a deep influence on the development of North Korea’s own self-propelled anti-aircraft guns.
The M1985: ZSU-57-2’s guns on a Shilka’s legs.
As the name it was given by the US Department of Defence implies, the M1985 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun was first observed in 1985. The actual date of its origin is unknown. We know that a prototype of the more advanced M1989 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun was spotted as early as 1983, and the M1985 likely predates this more advanced system. It may even have been part of the several vehicle models introduced in the late 1970s/early 80s alongside the M1981 Shin’Heung and the Chonma-Ho. The M1985, using mostly off-the-shelf parts from Soviet designs, likely did not have a particularly long development cycle.
The vehicle could be very shortly described as mounting the ZSU-57-2’s armament of two S-68A 57 mm autocannons on a chassis copied from the GMZ-575 found on the ZSU-23-4.
North Korea’s version of the GMZ-575 chassis
The hull of the M1985 appears to be a visually almost identical copy of the ZSU-23-4’s GMZ-575 tracked chassis. Only a few differences may be seen. The North Korean model appears to have different side stowage, with four stowage hatches to be found instead of three on the Shilka. The glacis may be angled a few degrees further back. The M1985 also lacks the three towing hooks found on the ZSU-23-4’s lower front plate. The M1985 also appears to use different tracks, with a central pin and two side pads.
There is no way to know if the North Korean version of the GMZ-575 retains the propulsive elements of the Shilka or instead moved to use another engine. The GMZ-575 chassis was originally based on the PT-76 light tank, which North Korea is thought to have assembled at the Sinhung tank plant in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Therefore, it is likely that the chassis was relatively easy to start to manufacture. North Korea operates a number of other vehicles in a similar weight range, notably the variety of vehicles based on the 323 armored personnel carrier and the M1981 light tank. It is not impossible to think the North Koreans may have tried to introduce some part commonality between their fleet, but this is pretty much just conjecture.
If the North Korean version is believed to have similar capacities to the original GMZ-575, it likely means the M1985 should be able to reach a maximum speed of about 50 km/h, and overall be somewhat less mobile than main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles due to a lower power-to-weight ratio.
Firepower: A ZSU-57-2 that cannot aim its gun low enough
On this GMZ-575-based hull, the North Korean mounted what appears to be essentially a new, but quite simple turret. It has a very simple rectangular shape when looked at from the side, but there are two slightly angled front-sides plates. The turret sides appear separated into a lower and upper section; the upper one may perhaps be folded down in some way, though the use of such a feature is somewhat questionable. The armor protection of the turret, as the hull, is likely very low – probably only able to resist rifle-caliber projectiles at most.
The turret is open-topped, and features as its main armament a local version of the dual 57 mm S-68A gun system found on the ZSU-57-2. Whether or not any significant modifications were applied to these guns is unknown. If they were kept identical to the original Soviet guns, the system could fire up to 240 rounds a minute. This rate of fire is hampered by the use of hand-fed five-round clips, requiring very frequent reloads. The shells in themselves are very powerful for an anti-aircraft gun. The projectiles weigh 2.8 kg and contain a 1.2 kg charge of nitrocellulose powder for the High Explosive shells, while the Armor Piercing shells offer some very decent penetration capacities of up to 110 mm or armor at 500 m – enough to deal with the vast majority of armored vehicles lighter than main battle tanks. These guns offer a strong recoil, which may be felt more strongly on the lighter GMZ-575-based hull than on the original ZSU-57-2. As on the ZSU-57-2, the operation of these guns is likely managed by four men, a gunner, two loaders and a sight adjuster. This would increase to five if the commander is included.
While powerful in theory, the operation of these guns is very much primitive even by the standards of the 1980s, let alone modern ones. With only optical sights, they are woefully outdated against modern planes, and while they may be effective against helicopters, those may typically identify the target, process it and send a missile on the way of an M1985 way before it can accurately estimate the range and start to fire. Against armored vehicles, the M1985 once again faces an issue, though a much simpler one. Simply put, the turret found on the M1985 does not appear to allow for anything but positive elevation. When looking at the turret, it does not appear the guns have enough space to target anything below their level. In other words, they would be unable to find an angle to fire against ground targets in the vast majority of scenarios. This appears to be a massive oversight. Considering whatever little views we have of the M1985, perhaps a way the vehicle could target ground targets – for example by lowering the turret’s side panels – may exist. It has, however, never been seen. The guns also feature a travel lock going up from the front of the hull.
Operation by the Korean People’s Army
The M1985 has been in service of the Korean People’s Army at least since the early 1980s, but, as almost systematically with North Korean armor, details of its service use are pretty much non-existent. In comparison to previous types, such as the M1978 Tokchon-based self-propelled anti-aircraft gun or the M1983/M1984, which appear to be little more than a ZPU-4 quadruple 14.5 mm machine gun mounted on a 323 hull, the M1985 brings somewhat of an improvement, as a more mature self-propelled anti-aircraft design. However, this does not prevent it from being entirely obsolete in the era it was fielded in. Mounting an armament designed for an era in which it would face early jet fighters and primitive helicopters, it would be fielded at a point in which jet fighters could fly well past Mach 2, and helicopters, such as later versions of the AH-1 Cobra, or soon the new AH-64 Apache, with advanced targeting systems, could likely make short work of a self-propelled anti-aircraft guns that has nothing but optical sights and old, powerful but low rate-of-fire guns.
The production numbers of the M1985 are unknown. The vehicle was spotted in a number of North Korean parades, including some recent ones, but the introduction of the much more advanced M1989 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, which seemingly uses the same chassis as the M1985 but features two radar-guided 30 mm guns, may mean that the M1985 only had a fairly short-lived production run. Nonetheless, the type remains in North Korean service today. The country has a policy of retaining armored vehicles in service way past the point of obsolescence (largely to outfit the very large army it maintains to defend itself, which could not be provided with enough material if only modern weaponry was retained) so it is not surprising to find a system with capacities similar to another one, which had its prime in the late 1950s, still be in main line service today.
Conclusion – A stepping stone to more advanced self-propelled anti-aircraft gun designs
The M1985 could hardly be considered a decent self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. With an obsolete weapon system – by the late 1970s or early 1980s, while North Korea was introducing the M1985, Eastern Bloc countries were phasing out the ZSU-57-2 almost entirely – and no form of modern fire control, its firepower against air targets is very limited. Also, with seemingly no way of operating decently against ground targets either, the vehicle may have some very limited use overall.
Nonetheless, it remains an important stepping stone in North Korea’s path towards producing a modern self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. With the M1985, North Korea introduced its own version of the GMZ-575 chassis, which would then be used for the M1989 – mating this chassis with a Shilka-inspired turret armed with twin 30 mm guns based on the naval AK-230, with a targeting radar. An even more advanced vehicle featuring the same hull was mentioned, but with a turret armed with a 30 mm rotary cannon, once again based on a naval gun (the AK-630), as well as side-mounted man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), with both a long-range target acquisition and short-range tracking radar. No photos of this seemingly quite advanced vehicle, designated M1994 by the US Department of Defence, appear to be publicly available.
Maximum speed (road)
~ 50 km/h
Likely 6 (driver, commander, gunner, two loaders, sight adjustor)
Locally-manufactured version of the 57mm S-68A
Rate of fire
240 rounds per minute maximum
Very light (likely no more than the ZSU-23-4, aka 15mm maximum)
North Korea (early 1970s-today), Amphibious armored personnel carrier, numbers uncertain
Despite its fairly small population of 24 million, North Korea retains one of the largest militaries in the world, particularly when it comes to its ground forces, the Korean People’s Army (KPA). This army is equipped with a large quantity of local equipment developed on the base of older Soviet or Chinese technology with a number of locally developed features. The major workhorse of the KPA’s mechanized elements can be found in the form of the 323 armored personnel carrier which has been in service and mass-produced in North Korea since the early 1970s. The type is the mainstay armored personnel carrier used by North Korea, and its chassis has been used for a wide variety of self-propelled artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers, anti-tank or anti-air systems, and even as the base of the M1981 Shin’heung light tank’s hull.
Official and unofficial designations
The 323 armored personnel, ubiquitous in North Korean service, has been known under a variety of names. It was first observed in 1973, and was consequently given the designation of M1973 by the US Department of Defence, a standard naming procedure for North Korean vehicles. The name used in North Korean nomenclature appears to be merely “323”. Western enthusiasts and analysts tend to prefer the designation of “VTT-323”, which appears more memorable but does not seem to actually be in use by North Korea at all. For the purpose of being true to the designation in use by the user of the vehicle, this article will use the 323 designation.
North Korea’s first armored personnel carriers
North Korea was fairly late in giving some considerable consideration to armored personnel carriers. In the years following the Korean War, and notably during the considerable enlarging the KPA went through in the 1960s, particularly in the armored branch, tanks tended to be heavily favored, with little attention given to armored personnel carriers. Small quantities of open-topped BTR-40, BTR-152 and BTR-60 were acquired from the Soviet Union during this era; North Korean sources claim the BTR-60PB was copied and produced in North Korea in the late 1960s, but it appears more likely the type was merely assembled in North Korea from Soviet-delivered parts, seeing as it appears fairly uncommon in North Korea service – as do BTR-ish vehicles in general until the 2010s.
As the KPA was acquiring a large number of T-55s and Type 59s in the 1960s though, the first major step to compensate this gap in armored personnel carriers was also taken, by acquiring a quantity of YW531A/Type 63A amphibious tracked armored personnel carriers.
The YW 531A
Developed during the 1960s, the YW 531A or Type 63A is a considerable step in the development of China’s armor industry, being one of the first projects undertaken without the assistance of the Soviet Union, with whom diplomatic relations were cooling down rapidly in the 1960s, culminating in armed clashes on the Sino-Soviet border in 1969.
The vehicle is a welded steel amphibious armored personnel carrier, armed with China’s Type 54 12.7 mm machine gun on a pintle mount. It has four road wheels, and moves through water with the movement of its tracks. The vehicle has a crew of two, and an infantry complement of 10, typically. Overall, the vehicle stands as a simple APC, but one fairly similar to other vehicles of the time, such as the American M113, in terms of capacities.
North Korea was an early customer of this YW 531A. It appears examples of the type were first acquired by North Korea in 1967, though this may have been a little later. In any case, the acquisition was made in the turn of the decade between the 1960s and 1970s. Two figures have emerged on the number of vehicles acquired; one sits at 160-180, and the other at 500. The first appears to be the most probable.
An obscure development
As is systematically the case with North Korea, the development of the 323 armored personnel carrier is pretty much unknown outside of the country. The fairly recent Sinhung tank plant was likely involved in the development of the vehicle. Built in the 1960s for the local assembly of Soviet PT-76s, this factory, located in Sinhung county, would evolve to become the standard producer of light, amphibious combat vehicles for the Korean People’s Army.
Why the North Koreans chose to modify the YW 531A is unknown. The Chinese vehicle may have been found to have lacking firepower and amphibious mobility by the KPA, which chose to adopt a modified variant of the type that addressed these issues. This local development may very well have been performed with Chinese approval or even support, and it has been suggested China could have provided industrial support to North Korea to help set up the production lines.
The 323 was first observed in 1973 during a parade at Kim-Il Sung square in Pyongyang, and was subsequently given the designation of M1973 by the US Department of Defence. The vehicle certainly entered service at a point in the early 1970s.
The 323’s basic features
In comparison to the YW 531A, the main modification brought by the 323 was a fully rotatable turret, located rear of the vehicle and mounting two 14.5 mm KPV machine guns. This modification required the extension of the hull by one roadwheel in order to retain the same troop-carrying capacities as the original vehicle. Along with this change, a variety of additional features were also added in the North Korean vehicle, such as hydrojets to provide propulsion in the water.
As on the original YW 531A, the 323’s hull is a fairly simple welded steel box. It features a boat-like front hull designed to enhance amphibious capacities, and sides slightly sloped inward. Small headlights are typically mounted on the front sides of the vehicle, near the point where the heavily angled upper front plate meets with the roof. A trim vane can be installed, extending from the lower front plate and allowing the vehicle to be less prone to becoming swamped; this configuration is typically used for landing exercises.
The vehicle’s driver sits on the front-left of the hull. He has a hatch as well as a periscopic sight used to provide vision. Another crewman, who appears to be a co-driver, sits on the front right. The vehicle’s engine appears to be located on the right, just behind this crewman. No information is available on the engine used, but the North Korean vehicle may very well retain the Deutz BF8L413F diesel engine of German origin producing 320 hp, which is found in the Chinese YW 531A.
Further rearward, the hull has its troop-carrying compartment, as well as the turret, which is mounted slightly rear of the center of the vehicle. The infantry complement of the 323 appears to be 10 infantrymen, though North Korean sources go as far as to claim the vehicle may carry 12 infantrymen. Seeing the limited size of the vehicle, 10 likely already makes for a very cramped compartment though. These infantrymen may exit the vehicle by a single, rear door, without a foldable ramp, or two rooftop hatches on the sides of the hull, which are likely only emergency exits and would require some amount of physical strength to open, as well as remain fairly limited in size. Those are some fairly poor ways of leaving the vehicle, making the 323 likely quite a risky vehicle to have to exit in the midst of combat. In comparison to the original YW 531A, the crew compartment of the 323 features another innovation, the presence of firing ports based on those of the BTR-60PB on both sides of the hull, allowing for the infantrymen to use their weapons from inside the vehicle.
The 323’s suspension features five relatively large road wheels of similar design to the YW 531A, which are generally in line with those used on Soviet amphibious vehicles such as the PT-76 or BTR-50. A drive sprocket is located at the front, and a tender wheel at the rear. The height of the suspension is relatively limited in order to improve the floatability of the hull. The 323 features a significant innovation on the matter of amphibious capacities in comparison to the YW 531A. The North Korean vehicle features two hydrojets, which may be observed at the rear of the hull, on the bottom sides of the infantry compartment’s door. These are likely directly based on the PT-76’s. This provides some considerable improvement of the 323’s mobility on water, in comparison to using solely the movement of the tracks as on the YW 531A or American M113 used by the Republic of Korea Army. Estimates typically place the 323’s speed on water at about 10 km/h. Interestingly enough, an estimate of the US Marine Corps Intelligence Activity places the 323’s maximum speed on road at 80 km/h. Unless a major upgrade in its powerplant was applied though, the vehicle’s maximum speed is likely similar, or even a little lower, to the YW 531A’s 65 km/h. The longer hull may give the 323 better trench crossing capacities, estimated at 2.2 meters in the same Marine Corps document- The document also estimates that the 323 may cross a 60 cm vertical obstacle, or climb a 34° slope. It gives an estimated range of 450 km for the North Korean armored personnel carrier.
The same Marine Corps document puts the 323’s hull protection at 24 mm, however, it is likely the vehicle retains the same 14 mm maximum armor thickness as found on the YW 531A. In general, the 323 is likely only protected against small arms fire, and perhaps 12.7 mm caliber round with some range on the frontal plates. Against any form of anti-armor weapons or mines, the vehicle is very unlikely to survive unscathed.
The most major change from the YW 531A to the 323 is the addition of a fully rotatable turret. It is installed in the rear of the vehicle’s center. In relation to the suspension, the turret is at the level of the 3rd and 4th road wheels starting from the front.
The vehicle’s turret is very similar to the one found on the BRDM-2 and BTR-60PB, both of which are operated by North Korea, and has a simple conical shape. It is, however, widened, and instead of a single 14.5 mm KPV machine gun, it accommodates two, with an optical device located higher on the turret center. Some sort of optical sight also appears to be located on the right of the turret. This turret allows for a relatively high elevation of the main weapons, which, coupled with their high power and range for machine-guns, give them some limited anti-helicopter capabilities.
The armor of the turret is likely similar to the hull. Its rotation speed is unknown, though likely decent. The 14.5 mm KPV is, generally, widely used by North Korea and preferred over 12.7 mm machine guns such as the DShK or NSV. It is also mounted on the country’s T-55, Type 59 and Chonma-Ho fleet. In comparison to those machine guns, the KPV brings to the table the considerable advantage of more powerful bullets. Its 14.5×114 mm projectiles, which have a high muzzle velocity of 976 to 1,005 m/s depending on the type, provide much better anti-armor capacities over 12.7 mm projectiles, being a considerable threat to armored personnel carriers and other lightly armored vehicles, with up to about 32 mm of RHA penetration at 500 m. High-explosive incendiary bullets can also provide some significant firepower against infantry, with a rate of fire of 600 rpm per machine gun, the armament of the 323 stands as one of the heaviest found on 1970s armored personnel carrier, far superior to the original YW 531A or M113, and able to provide some non-negligible firepower, particularly at a time in which infantry fighting vehicles were still in their infancy.
This simple-shaped turret houses one crewman, the commander, likely bringing the crew of the 323 to three, though sources sometimes mention a fourth crewman, which would be a radio operator. Seeing the size of the vehicle though, properly accommodating fourteen persons inside would be quite unrealistic. The length of the vehicle is unknown, but considering the original YW 531A is 5.5 m long, and the M1981 light tank, of which the hull is based on the 323’s but with an additional roadwheel, is estimated to be 7.60 m long, the 323 is likely about 6.5 m long, give or take a couple decimeters. As for the weight, the 323 likely stands between the two vehicles as well, with the YW 531A weighing in at 12.5 tonnes and the M1981 at about twenty; somewhere around 15, perhaps up to 16 tonnes seems the most likely for the North Korean APC.
The KPA’s mainstay APC
By modern standards, the 323 may not seem to be a particularly impressive vehicle, however, in the context of the early 1970s when it was introduced, it stood as a fairly respectable vehicle. In comparison to other tracked APCs of the time – the M113 and YW 531A being some of the most common – the 323’s hydrojets brought superior speed and maneuverability in water, in comparison to the use of tracks movement only. In terms of firepower, the usage of two 14.5 mm KPV machine guns in a fully rotatable armored turret made it far superior to the pintle-mounted 12.7 mm machine guns found in comparable vehicles, giving the 323 some decent capacities in terms of infantry support, and even light anti-armor capacities sufficient to knock out other APCs or armored cars.
The vehicle appears to have been, pretty much as soon as it was pressed into service, a major hit for the KPA. The 323 has been mass-produced since the early 1970s, with no sign of stopping, and has clearly become the most common armored personnel carrier in the Korean People’s Army. It may quite realistically be the most common and highly produced North Korean armored vehicle. Out of the around 2,500 armored personnel carriers the KPA was estimated to have in the late 2010s, it would not be surprising if around 2,000 were of the 323 model, though a variety of other foreign and indigenous types are also found in the North Korean arsenal.
In service, the 323 mainly outfits the KPA’s mechanized battalions. These consist of about 550 men, with three infantry companies (with 10 323s each), an anti-tank platoon, a mortar company, and an air defense platoon, all of which typically operate vehicles of the 323 family, and a battalion headquarters unit that includes between one and three vehicles of the 323 family. Overall, somewhere around 50 323 APCs can typically be found in a standard North Korean mechanized battalion.
Different Missile Configurations
Ever since it has first been observed in 1973, a couple of different missile configurations have been seen for the 323.
A configuration that does not appear to be seen in any publicly available photographs, but appears in documents of the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, shows the 323 with dual SA-16 Igla man-portable anti-aircraft defense systems mounted on top on the turret, towards the rear. It also sports an AT-3 Sagger/”Malyutka” (perhaps the North Korean version, known as the Susong-Po) mounted on top of the dual 14.5 mm machine guns. This version would theoretically vastly improve the capacities of the 323 when dealing with armored vehicles and aircraft, but it has never been spotted in operation.
Another configuration there are photos of was shown during the 1992 60th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army (taking as the date the alleged foundation of a resistance group) military parade. This configuration has the 323 mount a battery of eight Igla missiles (or local copies) on an elevable mount on top of the turret, which would theoretically give the 323 some considerable firepower against helicopters.
It ought to be noted, however, that none of these configurations have ever been seen in operational exercises, and as such, whether they are actually in operational configuration is highly questionable. It has been raised that the 323 may merely have been fitted with missiles for the purpose of deception, to cause intrigue on the true capacities of the North Korean APC, while the vehicle was not actually adapted to fire the missiles. This would not be unique in the history of North Korea, with the M1981 light tank seemingly being outfitted with non-operational Malyutka missiles during the 1985 parade it was first seen in.
It has been mentioned by a reliable source that, fairly recently, small numbers of 323 have been seen with a 30 mm automatic grenade launcher, a North Korean developed weapon often seen on the armament packages mounted on tanks such as the Chonma-216 or Songun-Ho, mounted on the right side of the turret. Such a secondary weapon makes perfect sense for an APC with some considerable infantry support capacities, such as the 323.
The large production of the 323 and its ubiquitous status in the KPA has resulted in the vehicle being featured in a large number of North Korean propaganda films, and being very often shown in footage of exercises or parades shown by Korean Central Television.
Interestingly enough, the use of the 323 in North Korean war movies saw the armored personnel carrier be used to depict American vehicles North Korean troops were facing off against. In this use, the 323 was repainted with Allied White Stars, as during the Korean War, as well as a text saying “U.S Army”. The use of 323 to depict American vehicles has been spotted in at least two 1986 North Korean war movies, Myung ryoung-027 ho and Chuok ui norae.
The 323’s ubiquity and large production led to a large number of variants being made at Sinhung tank plant using its chassis. The 323’s chassis is arguably the most commonly used for a large variety of roles in the KPA.
A first derivative, which remains similar to the 323 in usage, but takes a different approach to the problem, is another armored personnel carrier version, which retains the lengthened hull in comparison to the YW 531 but removes the turret, replacing it with a mere pintle-mounted 14.5 mm KPV. The additional space was used to allow for better infantry-carrying capacities, notably a double rear-door. As first produced, this version appears rather rare, but it was used to create a whole variety of vehicles that used the free space created by the lack of turret to mount different weaponry. Very interestingly, some use this space to mount multiple rocket launcher systems, either Chinese 107 mm Type 63 or North Korean 122 mm, while keeping the infantry carrying capacity, making them rocket-armed armored personnel carriers. Those vehicles appear to be known as Sonyon in KPA service. Another vehicle that uses the hull of the turretless 323 is the “Type 85” or “M1992”, an anti-tank guided missile vehicle which is armed with a rear-mounted battery of Malyutka/Susong-Po missiles and a pintle-mounted 14.5 mm KPV.
Another turretless 323 variant is the command post model, which appears to be the most commonly used command armored vehicle in the KPA. This model features a raised rear compartment, likely to accommodate better communication equipment and maps. It appears to retain a capacity of about ten men.
The 323’s hull has also been widely used to create self-propelled guns, some seemingly geared towards anti-tank use, while some others are artillery pieces.
The anti-tank vehicles mount a 100 mm gun, likely derived from the Soviet BS-3, in an open-topped, rear casemate which replaces the turret and infantry compartment. The presence of dual-opening rear doors suggests this vehicle was based on the turretless variant of the 323 to begin with. These 100 mm tank destroyers appear to have been developed quite early on, seemingly being in service since the first half of the 1970s.
The artillery pieces based on the 323’s hull mount the 122 mm D-30 of Soviet origin. Two models exist, designated as the M1977 and M1985, with the difference mainly been in terms of superstructure; the M1985 appearing to be a more mature and long-term model, which, for example, removes the towing hook of the field gun that had been retained on the M1977. Both vehicles remain quite similar, with a rear-mounted, open-topped casemate.
Mortar carriers variants of the 323 also exist. An 81 mm mortar carrier is known to exist and has been designated as “M1985”, but no publicly available photos of the type appear to exist. Another mortar carrier, the “M1992”, which has been theorized to actually date all the way back to 1978, mounts a 120 mm or 140 mm mortar in a rear-mounted fully rotatable turret – likely inspired by the Soviet 2S9 Nona. The type does not appear to be extremely common in KPA service though, with no footage of it appearing to be in existence outside of the 1992 parade.
The 323 hull has also been used to create light self-propelled anti-aircraft guns in the form of the quad ZPU-4, existing in several models; one untitled, and one given the name of “M1983” in a hull which features some more extensive modifications in comparison to the original 323. Though more modern self-propelled anti-aircraft guns now exist in KPA’s service, in the form of the dual 30 mm-armed M1989, the lighter 323-based 14.5 mm vehicles likely remain in service as well.
A cargo and an anti-ship missile version of the 323 also appear to be in use. Last, but not least, the chassis of the 323 was taken as a basis for North Korean engineers of the Sinhung plant to develop an amphibious light tank that also takes inspiration from a variety of other vehicles, the M1981 Shin’heung. This light tank, quite common in the KPA’s arsenal since its introduction in the late 1970s, uses the hull of the 323, slightly widened and lengthened by one roadwheel. Another, earlier amphibious light tank mounts a rear turret on the hull of the 323 with five road wheels.
Despite its reputation of reinforced isolation from the rest of the world, North Korea actually maintains a non-negligible export branch when it comes to military equipment. Though the most common exports tend to be small arms and missiles, armored vehicles can sometimes be exported as well.
In the case of the 323, two customers are known. Zimbabwe appears to have purchased some vehicles around 1984. In 1985, Ethiopia took delivery of a number of 323 APCs, along with Chonma-Hos and M1977 self-propelled guns. Disappointingly, no footage of either of those 323 operators appears to exist, though we have a number of photos of 323-based M1977 self-propelled guns in Ethiopian service.
Conclusion – North Korea’s quiet workhorse
In public imagination, when one thinks of North Korea’s land equipment, the first vehicles which come to mind, outside of perhaps the large ballistic missile launchers the Strategic Rocket Force has recently started to operate, tend to be the Chonma-Ho and Songun-Ho family of tanks, in their large variety of variants and armament configurations. The country’s vast fleet of self-propelled guns, which includes some very peculiar vehicles like the M1978 or M1989 Koksans, likely comes second. Few think of the small armored personnel carrier that is the 323.
Despite this, though, the vehicle is, by all means, a workhorse of the Korean People’s Army, as well as one of, if not its most durable and common vehicle. The most produced armored personnel carrier of the “Hermit Kingdom” ever since the 1970s, the 323 is also the vehicle of which the hull was used for the widest variety of armored vehicles. Not even the Tokchon or Chonma-Ho chassis can come close to the 323’s in terms of variety of use. Sharing parts with a very wide variety of vehicles and seeing its chassis used for a large quantity of vehicles, several of which are likely still in production today, the 323, despite already being nearly 50 years old and vastly obsolete against more modern armored personnel carriers, is most likely here to stay in the KPA, even though some more modern APC options, such as the M2009 Chunma-D or wheeled M2010, have appeared in recent years.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (1948-present)
Medium tank – ~ 2,000 purchased from Soviet Union
After fighting during the final stages of World War II, from the spring of 1944 until May 1945, the T-34-85 was then supplied to states under the influence of the Soviet Union, such as Poland, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. Thanks to these supplies, by 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and its army, the Korean People’s Army (KPA), were able to equip themselves with relatively modern medium armored vehicles capable of far outclassing the troops of the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) of the southern Republic of Korea (ROK).
The T-34-85s were used extensively in the first phases of the Korean War, where they were the only medium tanks used by the Chinese and North Koreans along with a few T-34-76s.
Foundation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Exactly 3 months after the end of the hostilities in Europe, on August 8th, 1945, Stalin declared war on Japan. On August 15th, the troops of the Soviet Red Army crossed the border that separated the Soviet Union from Korea, advancing without meeting Japanese resistance and entering victoriously into Pyongyang on August 24th.
As previously agreed with the Western Allies, the Soviet troops ended their advance about halfway down the Korean peninsula, where the 38th parallel passes through. There, they waited for the US troops that landed on the peninsula on September 8th.
After an attempt to reunify the two states failed, on August 15th, 1948, the Republic of Korea was proclaimed in the south, with its capital at Seoul and president Syngman Rhee. On September 9th, 1948, the birth of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was proclaimed in the north, with its capital at Pyongyang. This embryonic Stalinist state was guided by the first of a dynasty, the ‘Great Leader’, Kim Il-sung.
The Korean People’s Army
The T-34 was the standard medium tank of the Red Army in World War II and was produced in two major versions, the T-34 and T-34-85. The first version, armed with a 76 mm gun, had 35,120 units produced between 1941 and 1944, but during operational use, some defects were found. Chief among them were ergonomic problems with the initial two-man turret, clutch, gearbox, suspension and the fact that the 76 mm guns were eventually outmatched and deemed ineffective against the new German tanks.
The T-34-85 was the latter version of the famous Soviet T-34 medium tank, the most produced WW2-era design. 44,380 units were produced from January 1944 to early 1950. Another 3,185 were produced by Czechoslovakia from 1952 to 1958, 1,980 by Poland from 1953 to 1955, and 7 by Yugoslavia after 1950, for a total of 48,952 T-34-85 produced. About 95,855 vehicles were produced on the T-34 chassis.
The new model had a turret ring diameter of 1,600 mm, compared to the 1,425 mm of the previous models. This allowed it to mount a larger and wider turret that housed three crewmen and a new 85 mm D-5T cannon (later ZIS-S-53) which greatly increased the anti-tank characteristics. It was, for example, able to penetrate the frontal armor of the Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger at a distance of about 1,000 meters.
This cannon could fire four different types of ammunition.
The engine was a V-2-34 38.8-liter V12 diesel with an output of 500 hp. This propelled the tank to a maximum speed of 55 km/h and a range of 300 km, thanks to the 556-liter internal fuel tanks. With the 5 external fuel drum-tanks with 95 liters each, this reached a total of about 1,030 liters of fuel, increasing the maximum range to around 550 kilometers.
The armor was of adequate thickness for a medium tank of the era. *Values taken from Engineering analysis of the Russian T-34/85
During World War II, the Soviet Union began developing new armored vehicles to replace the T-34-85 as the main medium tank in the ranks of the Red Army. The first design was the T-44, which retained the turret fitted with an 85 mm gun, but had a new hull with torsion bar suspension and thick, well-sloped frontal armor. However, mechanical problems and the inability of mounting a new turret armed with a 100 mm cannon that would increase anti-tank performance meant that the project was abandoned after only 1,800 units were produced.
The second vehicle on which the Soviet Union focused was the T-54. This entered production in 1946, although, due to the defects found, by the end of 1947, only 25 had been made. In 1948, production of the T-54-1 began, but this was once again interrupted due to the defects of the vehicle and the low quality of materials used to make it. In 1949, the production started again, this time with the T-54-2, with 423 units produced by the end of 1950. This was not enough to be supplied to Korea or China for the Korean War. In fact, these started arriving in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1958.
According to a CIA analysis titled Engineering analysis of the Russian T-34/85 written in September 1951 and made public on April 18th, 2000, some T-34-85s and engines which had been captured in Korea and arrived in the United States in late March 1951. The T-34s were considered good vehicles by their American reviewers, even if not without defects.
One of the vehicles in question, called ‘G812’, was analyzed in detail. It was produced in the Soviet Union in late 1945 and captured in Korea in mid-1950. During the analysis, some defects were found, such as the gears being hard to shift, a lot of noise in the crew compartment, the lack of a turret basket, and the quality of the armor fabrication. Specifically, the welds between the plates of armor were criticized, even if it should be noted that the same CIA report states that some are not critical defects, but simply that some features were not up to the minimum standards required by the US Army.
The same report, however, praised the armor, stating that it was composed of materials that were, in some cases, better than those of US armor. Also, it was noted that it was forged by unskilled workers and turned out to be harder than U.S. armor, at 413-460 BHN for Soviet steel compared to 280-320 BHN for US steel.
The abbreviation BHN – Brinell Hardness Number (unit of measurement kg/mm²) is a figure used to determine the hardness of a material from a hardness test. The harder a steel is, the better it will be at resisting shell impacts, but would also be more vulnerable to shattering. In this case, the two values were adequate for ballistic steel, even if, obviously, the T-34 armor had less ductility.
On the battlefield, this increased the crew’s chances of survival against certain types of impacts at the expense of the vehicle’s structural integrity.
The same report emphasized that, despite the less malleable armor, the lower quality, and more fragile welds, Soviet vehicles should not be underestimated. With a well-trained crew, they could be very difficult targets.
Another detail to be mentioned was the cost and time of production. In 1945, a T-34-85 cost 142,000 rubles. During World War II, this was equivalent to about US$26,000 dollars. Considering that an American M4 Sherman cost between US$45,000 and US$64,000 dollars and that the T-34 was produced in about half the time of an M4 Sherman, the T-34 was both quicker and substantially cheaper to manufacture. However, given the disparity between the economic and industrial powers of the US and USSR, the US could still outproduce the Soviets, which they did during WW2, during which time there were more Shermans built than T-34s.
Most of the T-34-85s that arrived before and during the Korean War were late production versions. Most had been produced in the months immediately after World War II, between May 1945 and August 1946, when it was no longer necessary to produce vehicles in the shortest possible time and save on money and raw materials. This increased the quality of the armor and the strength of the welds.
Before being sent to the DPRK in 1948, the worn-out engines, automotive components, and guns in the vehicles were replaced with newly manufactured parts, thus providing the Korean People’s Army with an efficient and almost brand new vehicle.
With the KPA’s coat of arms
Before the Korean War
At the end of the 1940s, the Soviet Union supplied the DPRK with several thousands of tanks, including a batch of about 170 SU-76M self-propelled artillery vehicles, an unknown number of T-34-76s, and 258 T-34-85s. These T-34-85s were mostly late production vehicles of the latest batch, produced between late 1945 and early 1948.
While the first Korean People’s Army Ground Force (KPA-GF) soldiers were training at the KPA School No. 2 for Officers in Pyongyang and the KPA Military Academy for the education of both political and military officers, the first North Korean tankers were trained in North Korea. After 1949, they were also trained in China on US and Japanese-made tanks, and on some T-34-85s from the Soviet Union.
In 1948, before Soviet vehicles arrived, the Soviets helped form the 15th Tank Training Regiment under the command of Tu Lying Su, a former Korean Red Army Lieutenant and the brother-in-law of Kim Il-Sung. The regiment was stationed in the village of Sadong, near the DPRK capital of Pyongyang.
This training unit was equipped with only two T-34-85s and consisted of a squad of 30 veteran Soviet volunteer tank officers. Of these, most did not speak Korean and needed to be constantly followed by interpreters, which were in short supply.
All of the recruits had previously served in Korea’s anti-Japanese guerrilla warfare, while the officers and NCOs had served in the Red Army or the Chinese Liberation Army as volunteers.
In May 1949, the regiment was reorganized and the cadets were all promoted to officers and NCOs of the newly formed 105th Armored Brigade, the first armored unit of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In the original plans, the 105th Armored Brigade was to serve as a breakthrough unit against South Korea and was (and still is) considered the elite armored unit of the Korean People’s Army. It is still equipped with the best vehicles in the possession of the KPA and the best training.
At its founding, the brigade consisted of five regiments, of which the 107th, 109th, and 203rd Tank Regiments were equipped (grades were not completed until October 1949) with 40 T-34-85s each. The 206th Motorized Infantry Regiment was equipped with Soviet-made trucks. The 303rd Motorcycle Reconnaissance Battalion and the 308th Armored Battalion had 16 SU-76Ms self-propelled assault guns. This gave a total of 120 medium tanks, 16 self-propelled guns and, according to Soviet and US documents, a total of 12 ZIS-3 76 mm field guns, 28 M42 45 mm Anti-Tank guns, 18 82 mm mortars, 12 37 mm K-61 Anti-Aircraft cannons, 12 DShK and DShKM heavy machine guns, 59 trucks, 201 cars and artillery tractors, 218 motorcycles and 8,442 officers, NCOs, and soldiers.
Prior to the war, the ranks of an armored regiment consisted of 40 T-34-85 tanks divided into three battalions, with one command tank and 13 tanks per battalion. Each battalion was then divided into three companies of four tanks plus one command tank.
Some sources state that the ranks of the armored battalion of an infantry division or a mechanized division would contain a minimum of 25 up to a maximum of 33 tanks. It is not specified if these were formed by T-34-85s only and what their structure was.
Thanks to the training of experienced Soviet veterans, at least at the beginning of the war, the North Korean tanks tended to fight in pairs, so that they could support each other in case of an attack by enemy soldiers.
From what is reported, however, only the 105th Armored Brigade had formed such ranks. In fact, due to the immediate need for vehicles and soldiers at the front, the crews of the other brigades received little training, often no more than one month per crew. Before being sent to the front, the full personnel complement was not completed.
At the outbreak of the war, the 41st, 42nd, 43rd, 45th, and 46th Armored Regiments were in training, but they did not receive more than 15 T-34s tanks each. Two other tank brigades were formed, the 16th and the 17th Armored Brigades, but they were formed only on 23rd June 1950, two days before the start of the war, and could not take part in the first battles.
A very interesting fact about the organization of a Korean Armored Brigade was discovered through documentation captured from the enemy during the war. The unit in question was the 17th Armored Brigade, which never received its full complement of T-34-85s.
Formed on June 23rd, 1950 at Sŭngho-ri, 19 km east of Pyongyang, it had only 43 T-34-85s and 16 SU-76Ms in its ranks. Of the 280 tankers, only 20 (promoted to officers) had 8 months of training and the rest barely exceeded 2 months. The brigade commander was Senior Colonel Chong Pir-u, who had served in the Red Army as a tanker, participating in the Battle of Berlin. For the first 2 months of the war, until August 23rd, the unit continued to train with the help of four Soviet trainers. Essentially, the 16th and 17th Tank Brigades were formed only to free up space in training camps where new tankers could be trained to replace losses.
At the end of August, the brigade (now renamed 17th Tank Division) had a staff of 4,200 soldiers under the command of a Headquarters commanded by the now promoted Major General Chong Pir-u. The change from rifle to tank division neither increased nor changed the number of T-34s and SU-76Ms available to the unit. It kept the 1st Tank Battalion with 21 T-34-85s and the 2nd Tank Battalion with 21 T-34-85s. There were also the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiments, a Self-propelled Artillery Battalion with 16 SU-76Ms, an Artillery Battalion with 16 ZIS-3 76 mm cannons and 4 122 mm M30 mortars, an Anti-tank Battalion equipped with 16 45 mm guns and 18 PTRD-41 Anti-Tank rifles, and an Anti-Aircraft Battery with 18 DShK machine guns.
The 1st Tank Battalion, commanded by Major Kang Hui-il, had, in addition to 21 tanks, 141 tankers, and 8 trucks, just like the 2nd Tank Battalion of Major U Pong-hak. The numbers painted on the T-34-85s were progressive and ranged from 700 to 742. T-34-85 number 700 was that of General Chong Pir-u, 701 was that of the 1st Tank Battalion Commander, Major Kang Hui-il, 702 was the T-34-85 of the 1st Company commander, and 703 was that of the 1st Platoon leader. T-34 number 705 was that of the 2nd Platoon leader and 707 was that of the 2nd Company commander.
Following this reasoning, the 722 was the T-34 of the 2nd Battalion commander, Major U Pong-hak, and 723 was the tank of the 1st Company commander of the 2nd Battalion.
The training unit was equipped with 30 T-34s and renamed the 208th Tank Training Regiment. Colonel Kim Choi Won, a veteran of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, was put in charge.
The Korean War
North Korean Attack
At the outbreak of the Korean War, on June 25th, 1950, the forces of the Korean People’s Army were divided into two armies. The 1st Army, under the command of General Kim Ch’aek, consisted of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 6th Infantry Divisions, and the 105th Armored Brigade. They were ordered to take the Ongjin Peninsula and Seoul, the capital of the ROK.
The 2nd Army, commanded by General Kim Kwang-hyop, was instead composed of the 2nd, 5th, and 7th Infantry Divisions, with the task of invading the central-eastern part of South Korea, in the direction of Inje.
The 208th Tank Training Regiment was assigned to the 7th Infantry Division with its full complement of 30 T-34 tanks.
In total, in the first phase of the invasion, there were about 150,000-200,000 KPA soldiers, 150 T-34-85s (120 from the 105th Armored Brigade), and 120 SU-76M assault guns. In addition to these units, there were another 30,000 soldiers and 105 T-34s available in reserve. Thus, at the outbreak of the war, the KPA had in its ranks 255 T-34-85s out of 258 delivered by the Soviets.
At the beginning of the war, the North Korean vehicles were unrivaled, as the ROKA had no tanks and only a few 2.36 in (60 mm) Bazookas and some 57 mm anti-tank guns. These turned out to be useless against the T-34s because of the poor training of the servants, who in some cases had never fired a single shot before the war.
The only vehicles the ROKA was equipped with were around 200 M8 Greyhound armored reconnaissance cars, some Dodge WC54 ¾ ton truck-based technicals armed with 57 and 75 mm recoilless rifles and some M3 and M5 Half-tracks.
Moreover, the lack of training of ROK Army troops in fighting armored vehicles allowed the T-34s to act practically undisturbed in the early stages of the war.
The 105th Armored Brigade divided its regiments to support the infantry units in the assault. Under the command of General Choe U Sik, the 107th Tank Regiment, supporting the troops of the 4th Infantry Division, attacked to the west, along the lines controlled by the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division of the ROKA at Kaesong. Kaesong would be conquered at 0930 hrs in the morning, after only five and a half hours from the start of the war. The ROKA 13th Infantry Regiment was stationed near a ford on the Imjin River, near Korangpo. During these battles, many US military advisers were captured before the South Koreans were able to organize a defense.
The troops of the ROKA 13th Infantry Regiment claimed to have destroyed a total of 11 T-34-85s during the battle, but it was later discovered through the testimony of captured North Korean tankers that no T-34s were destroyed that day, although several were damaged.
Although the offensive in Korea was immense in scale, US Ambassador in Seoul John Muccio phoned the White House only at 0900 hrs, catching everyone unprepared. Some US generals did not believe the Korean People’s Army would be a problem and took the attack lightly.
Meanwhile, two Yak-9s from the Korean People’s Army Air and Anti-Air Force (KPAAF) attacked the residence of South Korean President Syngman Rhee, who decided it was time to leave Seoul. John Muccio managed to convince him that if he left Seoul, the ROKA would be demoralized and collapse in less than a day. Together they began to organize the evacuation of politicians, foreign citizens and others.
To counter the T-34s, TNT charges and improvised demolition charges were used. These did not provide the desired effects, not destroying a single T-34 and costing the 1st Infantry Division 90 soldiers. According to some unconfirmed sources, the high number of losses was also due to the attempt to destroy the tanks using improvised suicide teams. According to Joseph C. Goulden‘s book Korea, the Untold Story of the War, the anti-tank suicide teams were created because South Korean soldiers were so poorly trained that they did not even know how to use the simple anti-tank mines of US origin.
Despite the ineffectiveness of ROKA’s anti-tank weapons and tactics, Radio Seoul continued to read made-up war bulletins throughout the day, claiming that President Syngman Rhee‘s troops were advancing north of the 38th Parallel towards Pyongyang.
Between 25th and 27th June, the KPA 107th Tank Regiment destroyed most of the South Korean 7th Infantry Division and advanced eastwards, meeting up with the 109th Tank Regiment in Uijeongbu, 20 km north of Seoul. From Uijongbu, the attack towards the South Korean capital started that same day.
On June 26th at 0900 hrs, Kim Il-sung sent a message to his citizens stating that the war they were fighting was necessary to unify the Korean peninsula. At 1100 hrs, Radio Seoul stated that the “Fierce Tiger” unit commanded by Maengho Dae (belonging to the 17th Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Kim Chong Won, a former sergeant of the Japanese Imperial Army, who fled North Korea in 1945) liberated the city of Haeju north of the 38th Parallel and continued its advance, having killed 1,580 soldiers of North Korea.
Some of the South Korean regiments were commanded by Korean soldiers who had participated in the Second World War as soldiers or NCOs for the Japanese Imperial Army. They were, therefore, well organized and trained, but not even they could do much against the communist T-34-85s.
On June 26th, 700 American civilians were embarked on a Norwegian ship at the port of Incheon under Ambassador Muccio’s supervision. That night, President Rhee, his collaborators, and their families fled from Seoul on a train without saying anything to the Americans.
General Douglas MacArthur still believed that the ROKA could repel the KPA, even though Ambassador Muccio informed him that North Korean cannon explosions could be heard from Seoul.
On June 27th, Muccio also fled the city trying to get to President Rhee in his Jeep. Panic was rampant in Seoul, even though Radio Seoul claimed that ROKA troops were besieging Pyongyang. Refugees and soldiers fled Seoul on the Han River bridges that were rigged with explosives 2 days earlier by Republic of Korea Army troops.
US war advisors and South Korean General Chae wanted to wait before detonating the charges. Due to his refusal to blow up the bridge, General Chae was replaced by General Jung Il Kwon, a former captain of the Japanese Imperial Army. He obeyed the command to blow up the bridge at 0215 hrs, killing several hundred soldiers and refugees and trapping some 10,000 ROK 5th Infantry Division troops.
For this reason, the engineer who detonated the charges was executed. General Chae died a few days later in unclear circumstances. Kim Paik, the Minister of Defense who issued the order, never received any blame.
On June 29th, after very light fighting, the troops of the Korean People’s Army conquered Seoul, even though Radio Seoul continued to report ROKA victories north of the 38th Parallel.
Not everyone in Seoul was desperate. Some civilians cheerfully welcomed the communist troops. General Song Ho Song, commander of ROKA’s 2nd Infantry Division, offered to create a volunteer army with South Korean POWs, while many young students and workers volunteered for the Korean People’s Army.
The vehicle that first entered Seoul, the T-34-85 312 of the Commander of the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion of the 105th Armored Brigade, is still preserved at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. It is treated as a valuable relic (like the T-54 that first entered Saigon, Vietnam in 1975) together with the DPRK flag that the soldiers hoisted on the Seoul government building and the Korean flag with 105th Armored Brigade’s colors.
After the excellent work done in liberating Seoul, the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions were renamed “Seoul”, while the 105th Armored Brigade was promoted to the 105th “Seoul” Tank Division.
In only five days of war, the ROKA lost 70,000 soldiers dead, wounded, prisoners, or which had deserted. It still had only 22,000 men who managed to resist until the American intervention.
Two days after the beginning of hostilities, on June 27th, the United States entered the war on the side of South Korea by sending a contingent of the 24th Infantry Division, Task Force Smith (named after commander Charles Smith) by ship from Japan.
Their armored component consisted of only M24 Chaffee light tanks. In fact, the U.S. occupation forces in Japan was equipped almost exclusively with M24s, as heavier vehicles could not transit the Asian nation’s bridges and roads.
After the intervention started, M4 Shermans and M26 Pershings arrived in the Pacific. These had been rusting for 5 years in warehouses or used as gate guardians in front of barracks. They were hastily put back into service and sent to Korea in the following weeks.
The Republic of Korea Army troops were so unprepared for war and demoralized that, according to some US officers, they abandoned their positions without even fighting. On some occasions, however, they resisted to the last, such as at the Battle of Suwon.
After the capture of Seoul, the Republic of Korea Army tried to maintain a line along the Han river. This was broken through by the Korean People’s Army between 3rd and 4th July 1950, as they resumed the advance towards the South.
In order to continue to slow down the lightning advance, ROKA General Jeong Il-kwon ordered the 1st Infantry Division to defend Pungdeokcheong, 5 kilometers north of Suwon, where the rest of the ROKA was attempting to create a defensive perimeter.
After exhausting the ammunition that had arrived in the previous days, the troops of the 1st Infantry Division, commanded by Kim Hong-il, tried to slow down the T-34-85s of the KPA with tree trunks laid along the road, but with little success.
Sensing the failure of the plan, Jeong Il-kwon withdrew with the bulk of his troops and headquarters from Suwon to Pyeontaek, leaving a small contingent in Suwon. These barricaded themselves in the Hwaseong Fortress built in 1796.
US warplanes bombed the ROKA army headquarters in Suwon, along with ROKA armored vehicles and trains loaded with ammunition that were still in the hands of the South Korean Army in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Communists in the following hours or days. Korean police committed mass killings in Suwon with the connivance of United States Air Force intelligence officer Donald Nichols and US troops.
About 1,800 political prisoners were shot dead by the retreating ROK Military Police. After the massacre, two US bulldozers buried the victims.
At the Hwaseong Fortress, in the beginning, commander Choi Chang-sik ordered that the North Gate, called Janganmun, be blown up. Later, thanks to the intervention of Colonel Lee Jong-chan, the destruction of this historical relic was avoided by creating a defensive perimeter along the North Gate.
Instead of undermining the north gate, it was decided to place 20 M15 Anti-Tank blast mines that had arrived from Japan a few days before.
In the afternoon of 4th July, the troops of the Korean People’s Army arrived in Suwon and began the attack. During the attack, 2 T-34-85s were destroyed because of the mines. One was Number 208 of the Commander of the 1st Company of the 1st Battalion of the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division, while the second is unknown.
ROKA sources state that another T-34 was destroyed by a 57 mm anti-tank gun. However, in his report, Vladimir Nikolaevich Razuvaev, a Soviet military advisor in the DPRK, did not mention any T-34s destroyed by anti-tank weapons. It is possible the vehicle was only damaged. The use by the ROKA of anti-tank guns in Suwon is not certain. Despite great effort, the fortress was abandoned at 1700 and the north gate was destroyed either by manually placed explosives or by T-34-85 fire.
Ascertaining that the two vehicles could not be repaired after the battle, the KPA removed the tracks and other parts that could be reused and abandoned them.
The citizens of Suwon later went to retrieve other parts of the tanks at night and used them in various contexts. Some parts of the engine deck, for example, were used by the town blacksmith.
Unfortunately for the civilians, the ROK Military Police considered that the possession of tank parts, cannon shells casings (used as lanterns), helmets (used as bowls), or other kitchen or work utensils made from vehicle parts or parts of military equipment, equated to being leftist subversives, communists, or worse, supporters of the North Korean regime. Those found in possession of such items could even face summary execution without trial.
The first battle between the KPA and the US Army was fought on July 5th, 1950 at Osan, 50 kilometers south of Seoul. Two regiments of the KPA 4th Infantry Division (about 5,000 men) and the 107th Tank Regiment of the 105th ‘Seoul’ Tank Division (36 T-34-85s, although some sources claim 33) attacked the 406 soldiers and 136 servants of Task Force Smith. The Americans were equipped with a battery of 105 mm howitzers, some 60 mm mortars, a 75 mm M20 recoilless rifle with 12 rounds, and 6 60 mm bazookas, the latter of which fired 22 rockets without effect.
The outcome of the battle, which lasted more than 3 hours, was a foregone conclusion. Before retreating due to the exhaustion of ammunition, the Americans managed to inflict losses on the North Korean tanks. Thanks to the 105 mm cannons and their six High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) projectiles, the US troops succeeded in destroying a T-34-85, damaging 1 other and stopping the other 2, as well as killing 42 Korean soldiers and wounding 85 more. This was in exchange for the loss of 60 American soldiers, the wounding of 21, and the capture of 82 others.
The North Korean army advanced further. Under the command of Lee Kwon Mu, the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments of the 4th Infantry Division and the 107th Tank Regiment of the 105th Armored Division defeated the South Korean 34th Infantry Regiment in the Battles of Pyeongtaek and Chonan. During a battle in a district of the city, the commander of the US 34th Infantry Regiment, Colonel Bob Martin, was killed after hitting a T-34-85 with a Bazooka rocket that did not penetrate.
By July 9th, the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division had lost only four T-34-85s, two by mines and two more during the previous battles with Task Force Smith. It also lost 7 SU-76Ms during the Chunchon Battle.
In the Battle of Chochiwon, the Americans put up a strenuous resistance. On the mornings of July 9th and 10th, a series of air attacks succeeded in destroying some vehicles approaching the city of Chonjui.
The Koreans did not give up the offensive and, on July 10th, they attacked the village of Chonjui, where some US mortars were positioned. The Americans requested an air attack. However, due to the fog, this attack did not destroy a single T-34 but accidentally destroyed A Company’s radios. The soldiers on the front line of Company A of the 21st Infantry Regiment that were under attack could no longer request the support of 155 mm guns. These instead began shooting blindly, hitting allied positions.
Also on July 10th, the North Korean 2nd Corps, led by General Mu Jong, advanced south along the west coast of Korea without encountering much resistance. The 6th Infantry Division commanded by Pang Ho San conquered Chinju.
Before the war, there had been communist uprisings against the government in that region. The guerrillas who had escaped the ROKA massacres came out of their hiding places and joined Kim Il-sung’s troops.
In the afternoon of the same day, during a counterattack, the first tank vs tank battle of the Korean War was fought. Three M24 Chaffee light tanks of Company A of the 78th Heavy Tank Battalion fought against some T-34-85s, probably of the 107th Tank Regiment. The small and fast US reconnaissance vehicles were inadequate for fighting against the Soviet-made medium tanks and two of them were destroyed, in turn knocking out one T-34.
The fighting continued throughout the afternoon and night, and, by the morning of July 11th, the North Koreans were only 3 kilometers from Chochiwon. In the morning, an attack was launched by 4 T-34-85s of the 107th Regiment and about 1,000 soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division against the US 3rd Battalion, which was almost totally annihilated, together with 3 other M24 Chaffees.
On July 12th, 2,000 North Koreans attacked the US positions at Chochiwon, forcing them to retreat towards Taejeon, destroying another 3 M24 Chaffees. By August, of the 14 M24 Chaffee tanks of Company A of the 78th Heavy Tank Battalion, only 2 remained operational. Some had also been knocked out by 14 x 114 mm PTRS-41 Soviet anti-tank rifles.
The other two tank companies in Korea at the time, Company A of the 71st Tank Battalion and Company A of the 79th Tank Battalion, had similar losses by August, causing a fall in morale for the troops who could not stop the advance of the Korean’s People Army.
During the Battle of Kum River, fought between July 14th and 15th, 1950, the KPA troops were not supported by tanks. After July 16th, T-34s of the 107th Tank Regiment took part in the fighting.
On July 19th, the North Korean 3rd and 4th “Seoul” Infantry Divisions and the 105th “Seoul” Tank Division, with a strength of about 20,000 men and about 50 tanks attacked Taejeon. They captured about 80 vehicles and several artillery pieces of the 63rd Field Artillery Battalion on the first day alone.
The plan was to encircle the city. Despite continuous attempts to break the attack, even with the support of M24 Chaffees, the North Koreans managed to encircle the US units. They destroyed most of the enemy’s food and ammunition stores rapidly thanks to the suggestions of South Korean citizens and their own agents, who continually sabotaged US units by mixing with the civilian population.
On July 20th, while the US troops of the 24th Infantry Division engaged the Korean People’s Army on the north and west defensive lines, some T-34s penetrated a point in the lines, entering the city.
At six o’clock in the morning, General Willian F. Dean was awakened by his orderly, Lieutenant Clarke, who informed him that some enemy tanks were advancing isolated towards the city. The General, his interpreter, and Lieutenant Clarke decided to join an Anti-Tank team to destroy those tanks.
When the general arrived in the area of operations, two T-34s lay destroyed, along with a U.S. ammunition truck, in the intersection in the center of town. A third tank lay motionless in an open field near housing built for US soldiers during the occupation between 1945 and 1948.
Dean’s team, with a ¾ ton truck, probably a Dodge WC64, equipped with a 75 mm M20 recoilless rifle, fired 4 or 5 rounds at the T-34 without hitting it once. Fortunately for them, the vehicle was already knocked down or abandoned.
In the afternoon, Dean and his two comrades joined an anti-tank team with a Bazooka that had only one rocket left. Two more T-34s were positioned in the same street where lay the previous two-tank wrecks destroyed in the morning and the ammunition carrier were still burning because of the white phosphorus rounds it carried.
After being targeted by machine guns, without casualties, the team went around the two tanks, passing behind the houses, coming to only 15 meters from the two tanks. The crews of the vehicles, probably sensing the danger, retreated and the shot fired by the soldier armed with the Bazooka did not hit. At that point, General Dean drew his .45 caliber pistol, firing at the two retreating vehicles.
In the evening, a T-34 that had bypassed the US defenses from the left side entered the city from the south and passed at low speed through the main street of Taejeon. It passed in front of the headquarters where General Dean was and in front of some artillery positions without firing a single shot and without the shocked American soldiers shooting at it.
At the northern edge of the city, the vehicle turned around and drove back, passing again in front of the headquarters. It then positioned itself about 800 meters from the headquarters, in a street, protected by some riflemen, probably North Korean agents infiltrated in the city with civilian clothes.
After several attempts to get around the vehicle, William Dean, the Bazooka man, and the rest of the group (consisting of cooks, messengers, and radio operators) entered a house that was right in front of the tank.
The General, in his book, General Dean’s Story, tells that he was only a few centimeters from the cannon barrel when he leaned out of a window to tell the Bazooka man where to hit the tank.
Three shots were fired against the T-34. The first one hit the turret ring. It did not set the vehicle on fire, even if the chilling screams of the crew were heard. The second and the third shots hit the turret ring again, making the screams inside the tank stop and starting a fire.
By July 21st, the withdrawal of US and ROKA troops from the city was being organized, but sabotage by North Korean infiltrators slowed it down. A locomotive connected to wagons loaded with ammunition was stolen. When a second locomotive was brought to Taejeon, rifle shots killed the train drivers.
Eventually, a third locomotive, protected by riflemen along with a few M24 Chaffee light tanks of the A Company of the 78th Tank Battalion, arrived. The tanks were not used for a counterattack, but to escort the convoy of trucks and guns out of the city.
This column, however, was ambushed by elements of the 3rd “Seoul” Infantry Division, which were hidden in the houses next to the street. Several trucks and jeeps were destroyed. General Dean, who was among the last to retreat, managed to escape from the city aboard his jeep but was still captured sometime later, after rescuing some wounded soldiers.
The city was occupied by the North Koreans after losing a total of 15 T-34-85s (the highest number since the beginning of the war). 7 of these were destroyed by American anti-tank teams. This battle cost the US Army a high price, with the 24th Division losing 30% of its soldiers, some M24s, and losing almost 3,000 prisoners, including General William Dean.
After the battle, KPA troops exhumed the corpses of 7,000 political prisoners and former guerrillas captured in the years or months before the war. These had been executed by the ROK Military Police before the North Korean’s arrival.
It was now clear that the North Koreans could no longer be pushed back. Thus, on July 20th, it was decided to hold them back as long as possible in order to create a defensive perimeter on the southeastern tip of the peninsula, the ‘Pusan Perimeter’. This 230 km long defensive line along the Naktong River defended the extreme south-eastern tip of the Korean peninsula.
During this period, due to the poor quality of the roads, the T-34-85s of the KPA began to suffer wear and tear of the mechanical parts after almost a month of intense use.
The 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division had to cannibalize some of its running T-34s for spare parts.
On July 22nd, the Battle of Yongdong began, where US Army troops, with their M20 rocket launchers, managed to disable at least 3 T-34s and others were lost in the minefields. The battle, which lasted until July 25th, cost the lives of about 300 U.S. soldiers, another 700 who were taken prisoners, and 11 M24 Chaffees who were captured or destroyed.
The North Koreans were slowed down quite a bit by the Battle of Hwanggan, fought until July 29th, which cost the US Army nearly 500 dead, wounded, and prisoners. On the other side, 3,000 North Koreans were dead, wounded and missing, as well as 6 T-34-85s damaged or destroyed. Five of these destroyed T-34-85s were lost as a result of air attacks with napalm and missiles.
The first use of the M26 Pershing during the Korean War was on June 28th, in Chinju. 3 M26s that had been recovered from a US Army depot in Tokyo were put in operational condition and shipped. The platoon that used them, along with some M24s, was forced to abandon them on June 28th. It is not clear if all three broke down irreparably during the fighting against the 6th Infantry Division of the KPA or if they were destroyed by T-34-85 fire.
Between the end of July and the beginning of August, the KPA continued to push back the ROKA and US Army troops as far as the Pusan Perimeter but suffered many losses. Of the 120 T-34-85s in service at the beginning of the war in the 105th Division, at the beginning of August, only about 40 remained, although some others were waiting for repairs in the rear.
On August 4th, 1950, a very fortunate event happened for the US Army. A 230 kg bomb accidentally dropped by a US fighter exploded on the roof of an abandoned factory 25 km from Pusan.
The headquarters of the Korean People’s Army was placed in that abandoned factory. The explosion injured General Kang Kon, Chief of Staff, and almost killed General Kim Chaik. The equipment was less fortunate. The bomb destroyed the radio room and left only a single radio still working. This slowed down the attack on Pusan, losing the golden opportunity to oust the US and its allies from the peninsula.
Between August 19th and 23rd, 1950, the 17th Tank Division was finally ordered into action.nThe 43 T-34-85s of the 1st and 2nd Tank Battalions, plus that of Major General Chong Pir-u, went from Sungho-ri. There, they were stationed at the Mirim-ni railway station near Pyongyang, where they were supplied with extra ammunition and fuel and loaded onto flatcars to await departure for the front.
Because of continuous air attacks, the division, in order to avoid losses, moved slowly at night, hiding during the day inside railway tunnels. The Division repaired the rails when they were damaged by air attacks by itself or with the help of the civilian population. They arrived in Seoul only between 23rd and 27th August (the tanks arrived first, then it was the turn of the other regiments of the division).
Regrouping in Seoul, the division left by train and crossed the Pyongjomgo-ri railway bridge at night. From there, it went to Wonju and then to Yongju under the command of Lieutenant General Mu Chong. There it was finally attached to the 8th Infantry Division under the command of II Corps, with headquarters in Mun’gyong.
The 1st Tank Battalion, under the command of Major Kang Hui-il, together with part of the division’s anti-aircraft battery, arrived in Yongju on August 28th, unloading its tanks and moving at night and moving towards Andong, Uisong and, finally, Uihung. During the last leg, between September 1st and 2nd, the battalion lost 3 T-34-85s to an air attack.
For the 2nd Tank Battalion, under the command of Major U Pong-hak, more precise data is available thanks to the testimonies of some prisoners of war that were interrogated.
It arrived in Yongju between the 29th and 30th of August 1950. In the evening, all the T-34s were unloaded from the flatcars and moved about 8 km away to Pyongun-ni, and parked on the sides of the road and camouflaged within 0600 hrs. At 1800 hrs the unit resumed its march, following the 1st Tank Battalion, arriving at Uihung on 1st September with only 6 T-34-85s. 5 were destroyed by airstrikes or had mechanical failures along the way.
On September 2nd, 4 more late T-34s arrived, followed by others, but the total number is unknown. Moving towards Sinnyong to support the 8th KPA Infantry Division’s attacks against the 6th ROKA Infantry Division, the unit arrived at 0300 hrs on September 3rd.
Three T-34-85s crossed a 10-meter long bridge while the fourth collapsed the bridge under its 32 tons of weight. This incident slowed down the attack, forcing the three tanks on the south bank of the river and the six on the north bank to camouflage themselves for the day. After a ROKA artillery bombardment that lasted for half a day, until 1500 hours, ROKA troops of the 6th Infantry Division captured the four tank crews that were south of the river, while the other six tanks fled north and were damaged in an air attack launched against them at 1600 hours.
It can be supposed that the data provided to the UN intelligence about this unit came from the tankers of the 4 tanks captured on September 3rd. From hereon, the information becomes fragmentary. It is known for sure that, between September 3rd and 15th, the 1st and 2nd Tank Battalions supported the attacks of the 1st and 8th Infantry Divisions of the 2nd Corps.
UN defense and counterattacks
In the Battle of Masan, a series of skirmishes that lasted from August 5th to September 19th, 1950, North Korea lost at least twenty T-34-85s and about 11,000 men, including dead, wounded, missing, prisoners, and deserters.
The situation remained in a stalemate, as every attempt by the KPA to break through the perimeter was in vain thanks to the arrival of new US and British troops. The USAF (US Air Force) destroyed most of the bridges, refineries, fuel depots, harbors, ammunition depots, etc. in DPRK territory between August and September. It also reduced daytime traffic of supplies to the KPA soldiers on the front lines to practically nil.
The damage to the logistic lines of the KPA was so serious that some prisoners later told that the soldiers had to move at night riding bicycles full of ammunition and hand grenades or fishing boats armed as best they could and loaded with ammunition if they were in areas near the coasts. These actions were needed in order to supply the North Korean soldiers on the front line. In other cases, weapons and equipment captured from ROKA troops or the US Army were used.
In addition to destroying North Korean supply lines, the USAF, available 24 hours a day, was called in to repel any attack attempted by the KPA on the UN lines. The North Korean lack of supplies during the Battle for the Pusan Perimeter was a great advantage for the UN troops, which were able to overwhelm the KPA. The North Koreans suffered losses of about 63,000 dead, wounded, missing, and 3,300 prisoners.
The UN forces, for their part, lost about 60,000 soldiers (40,000 of the ROKA) but managed to maintain their positions. In fact, thanks to continuous air support, from August 2nd, 1950 onwards, UN forces began to land in force. By the end of August, these reinforcements in the Pusan Perimeter came to about 500 tanks, split between M4A3 (76)W Shermans, M26 Pershings, and M46 Pattons. In September, the UN troops in the perimeter had risen to about 180,000 soldiers against the 90,000 of the Korean People’s Army.
By the end of 1950, U.S. troops had received 1,326 tanks, of which 138 M24 Chaffees, 679 M4A3 (76)W HVSS Shermans, 309 M26 Pershings, and 200 M46 Pattons.
The 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division crossed the Naktong river on August 12th. The next day, the 109th Tank Regiment, which remained in the rear, was targeted by several US airstrikes at Chonjui, losing over 200 vehicles, including 20 tanks, and many others damaged.
Another series of targeted airstrikes along the Naktong River dispersed the T-34-85s of the Korean People’s Army, which did not attack the Pusan Perimeter en masse, but in small tank units (more difficult to detect by scout planes) which attacked towns along the perimeter.
On 15th August, 21 T-34-85s from the Sadong Tank Training Center arrived to reinforce the units at the front and to replace the losses. It is not clear if they were the only replacements that arrived during the battle. During the Battle of Pusan Perimeter, the KPA received another 100 (some sources claim 150, due to the impossibility of checking North Korean sources, it is impossible to say which number is correct) T-34-85s from the Soviet Union. About eighty of those went to arm the 16th that had just finished the training phase of the crews and were still in North Korea, while the remaining twenty had to replace the losses of the 105th Armored Division. According to some sources, almost all were destroyed by U.S. airstrikes before reaching the front.
Battle of No Name Ridge
On the evening of 17th August 1950, thanks to the reinforcements received, the 2nd Battalion of the 109th Tank Regiment of the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division launched an attack on the positions of the 9th Infantry Regiment, which was supported by a platoon of Company A of the 1st Marine Tank Battalion.
The 1st Marine Tank Battalion was called to duty on July 7th, 1950, but at the time it was equipped with only M4A3(105) HVSS for infantry support. An unknown number of M26 Pershings were recovered from a depot in Barstow, California, and shipped to San Diego, where the unit was quartered.
Due to the limited time available, while the majority of the M26s were unloaded from the trains, two were taken to Camp Joseph H. Pendleton, where the crews were briefly familiarized with the tanks.
On 11th July 1950, the 1st Marine Tank Battalion sailed aboard USS Fort Marion LSD-22 towards Korea. During the transfer, the crews serviced the M26s that had been lying in storage for a long time. Arriving in Pusan on 2nd August, they were deployed for a series of actions. They were not employed against T-34s during these.
The unit that took part in the Battle of No Name Ridge was commanded by Lt. Granville Sweet, who had under his command four M26 Pershing tanks at ‘No Name Ridge’, also known as the Obong-Ni ridge. These four tanks were supported by a company of M20 75 mm recoilless guns and some anti-tank teams.
The attack of four T-34-85s was first intercepted by the anti-tank teams on Hill 125, but they did not stop the advance. Their effect was limited to causing the burning of the external 90-liter tanks on the enemy tanks in some cases.
The T-34-85s advanced again until they reached a turn in the road covered by a hill. Sweet’s tanks were behind it. Three of them were lined up side by side so, in case the T-34s destroyed them, they could not pass further, and the fourth tank was behind them.
When they received the order to prepare to repel the Koreans, the tank crews were filling up their tanks. Alarmed, they hastily ended the operation, spilling fuel on the tanks. As soon as they saw the T-34-85s peeking out from behind the hill, M26 number 34, commanded by Sergeant Cecil Fullerton, fired the new Hyper Velocity Armor Piercing (HVAP) M304 ammunition. When the tank opened fire on T-34 Number 322 (2nd Battalion Commander), the spilled fuel on the M26’s engine deck caught fire without damaging the vehicle.
The US soldiers who witnessed the battle were astonished. The M26 Pershings were on fire and so were the T-34-85s and, yet, no vehicles had been knocked out.
After the first round, M26 number 34 fired two other rounds, one into the turret and two into the frontal armored plate, causing the T-34 to start burning.
M26 number 33 of Sergeant Gerald Swinicke opened fire on the second T-34, hitting it the first time with a HVAP round in the turret. The Korean tank did not stop, so tanks number 33 and 34 shot it with four APC (Armor-Piercing Capped) rounds, all piercing the frontal plate.
Surprisingly, the Korean tank was still advancing and opening fire. The two M26s shot it with another HVAP, 2 APC and 4 HE rounds, destroying the T-34-85 by detonating 85 mm rounds in the turret.
The last T-34-85, Number 314, managed to get away but was destroyed by fire from the same Bazookas that had set fire to its external tanks earlier.
On September 5th, the North Korean troops launched an attack on the same road, but with only two T-34-85 supported by two SU-76Ms. This time, the North Korean vehicles had more luck and destroyed two M26 Pershings that were caught unaware and had their turrets turned towards other targets. All four KPA vehicles were later knocked out or destroyed by fire from anti-tank teams.
During the Battle of Kyongju, which took place from August 27th to September 12th, 1950, the 17th Armoured Brigade of the KPA was employed. On the evening of September 3rd to 4th, when the threat of air attack was minimal, 3 T-34-85s succeeded in destroying an artillery battery and put to flight two battalions of the ROK at P’ohang-dong, managing to reoccupy the city during the night.
Later, while advancing towards Kyongju, other T-34-85s of the 17th Armored Brigade managed to hit and damage (apparently by breaking the tracks) three M46 Pattons before being destroyed by US artillery fire.
That same day, an airstrike hit the KPA positions, weakening them and forcing the North Korean forces to give up the attack on the city of Kyongju. However, some infantry attacks forced some ROK units to retreat.
The United Nation forces advanced with the support of some tanks up to the vicinity of P’ohang-dong, meeting a group of 5 SU-76Ms. In the clash that followed, one self-propelled gun was destroyed, while the others were destroyed during an air attack that occurred shortly after.
In the afternoon, other North Korean armored forces blocked the American advance in the city, allowing the KPA troops to evacuate ammunition and other material from the nearby Yonil airport.
In the area east of Yongsan on September 4th, the Marines M26s knocked out T-34s and found a fifth abandoned T-34.
During the night between September 5th and 6th, 1950, the city fell back into the hands of the KPA, which created defensive positions with which to resist the successive attacks of the Americans and the ROKA.
The bad weather conditions of those days did not allow significant use of airstrikes in the area, allowing for several days during which the KPA units were able to repel any attack.
Between September 11th and 12th, thanks to the improvement of the weather conditions, the UN units were able to drive the KPA out of P’ohang-dong, forcing the North Korean soldiers to retreat towards Kyongsang. The KPA lost 13 T-34-85s and 5 SU-76Ms during the battle.
The Incheon Landing
The Incheon Landing (Operation Chromite) consisted of a series of landings by the X Corps, composed of the 1st and 7th Marine Divisions, X Corps, aboard LVT Amtracs. They landed on three beaches. To the West, the 7th Division supported by the 73rd Tank Battalion landed on the Red and Green beaches and would then take possession of the Wolmi-do Peninsula and Blue Beach. This allowed the 1st Division, supported by the 1st Marine Tank Battalion, to take the Incheon Peninsula to cut off any supply to the North Koreans in the peninsula.
At 0633 hrs, the 3rd and 5th Battalion of the Marines landed at Green Beach on Wolmi-do Island. The armored detachment of 1st Marine Tank Battalion, equipped with two M4A3(105) HVSS with dozer blades, six M26 Pershings, a flamethrower tank and an M32A1B3 Armored Recovery Vehicle (ARV) from Company A, landed with the third wave on board of Landing Ship Utility (LSU).
During the Incheon Landings, no Korean armored vehicles were sighted, except for a BA-64 reconnaissance light armored car on Wolmi-do island. It was observed when the 1st Marine Tank Battalion had organized the defence on the causeway that connected the island to the Incheon harbor. Obviously, the armored car was rapidly obliterated by M26 Pershing Number 34 of Sergeant Fullerton.
In the Seoul area, on September 16th, 1950, the Korean People’s Army had only the 42nd Mechanized Regiment, a recently formed unit with very inexperienced crews. As soon as news of the landing was received, the High Command of the Korean People’s Army ordered the 43rd Tank Regiment, equipped with only 12 or 15 T-34-85s, to move to the area of operations from Wonsan in the north east, a distance of 180 km. The 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division was ordered to withdraw to the north to avoid being trapped by the troops of the X Marine Corps.
On September 16th, 1950, a company of 6 T-34-85s from the 42nd Mechanized Regiment, without knowing about the landing, was advancing on the Incheon-Seoul highway when it was ambushed by the M26 Pershings of the Marines.
The first tank was destroyed by a Bazooka team that also managed to damage the second one, while the M26s promptly finished the work. At the end of the skirmish, the bodies of 200 Koreans lay on the battlefield while, on the US part, only one Marine was wounded.
The same day, an F4U Corsair pilot claimed to have destroyed another six T-34s in a napalm airstrike.
Another 6 T-34-85s were destroyed on the morning of September 17th. The crews were taken by surprise while they were out of their vehicles, probably cooking breakfast. The last T-34s attempted a counter-attack when the US Marines were already advancing towards Seoul, but the anti-tank teams drove them back. Between September 16th and 20th, the KPA lost 24 T-34-85s to the X Marine Corps.
Many of the new 24 T-34-85s of the 42nd Mechanized Regiment were lost in the battles against Company A and Company B, equipped with M4A3(76)W HVSS Shermans of the 73rd Tank Battalion in support of the 7th Marine Division near the city of Suwon, 30 km south of Seoul.
On September 20th, in fact, B Company lost an M4 under North Korean tank fire but destroyed eight T-34s along the western road to Suwon.
Company B also destroyed three more T-34-85s during the battle for control of the city’s airport, losing only four Jeeps crushed by T-34s. Company A destroyed a total of 8 T-34-85s, four in Suwon and four on the road between Suwon and Osan.
On September 22nd, the attack on the South Korean capital began. It was poorly defended by KPA troops, mostly recruits, and T-34-85s of the 43rd Tank Regiment. The battle, which lasted until September 28th, saw the U.S. Marines victorious and cost the KPA an unknown total of casualties and 12 T-34s in the city, 7 of which were destroyed by Marine Corps tanks.
From the breakthrough from the Pusan Perimeter to the Second Battle of Seoul
The 17th Tank Division was involved in skirmishes against the 6th and 1st ROKA Infantry Divisions which launched several attacks after September 15th, 1950.
The 9 surviving T-34-85s of 1st Company of the 1st Battalion were deployed at Kusan-dong (3 tanks), Uihung (2 tanks), and Kunwi (4 tanks), while the 11 surviving tanks of 2nd Company were deployed in well-camouflaged hull-down positions along a defensive perimeter near Uisong.
Of the 2nd Tank Battalion, it is only known that its tanks were used for defensive purposes north of Sinnyong. After 17th September, however, the division was ordered to move as quickly as possible towards Seoul.
A document captured by the UN intelligence reports that, on September 18th, 1950, the 17th Tank Division had at its disposal 26 tanks, 18 trucks, 37 motorcycles, 1 car, 440 rifles, 519 submachine guns, 26 light machine guns, 3 heavy machine guns, 5 Anti-Aircraft machine guns, and 6 mortars.
The 1st Tank Battalion had only 14 T-34-85s capable of moving when it began to retreat. The retreat to Andong was hampered by continuous F-51 airstrikes that destroyed or immobilized 10 tanks.
According to the testimony of a prisoner of the KPA, the 4 surviving T-34s arrived in Andong on 25th September. On 26th September, along the road to P’unggi, another 2 T-34s were destroyed. The last two vehicles were hidden in a tunnel and the surviving tankers met with Major Kang Hui-il, who informed them that they would go to retrieve more tanks. The major left with about 80 men but never returned.
The 2 surviving vehicles plus two more T-34-85s, possibly two 1st Battalion tanks that had been repaired or two surviving T-34s from the 2nd Tank Battalion (which arrived in P’unggi that night along with the division headquarters), continued their retreat to the north. In the meantime, the T-34-85 of U pong-hak, now promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, remained to fight the UN troops and was subsequently killed in action.
The 7th Tank Division, or what remained of it, continued its retreat northward, never reaching Seoul. It had to divert towards the 38th Parallel, arriving there on September 28th and almost immediately taking defensive positions between the villages of Korangp’o-ri and Mojon-ni.
As already mentioned, on September 17th, the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division began its retreat towards Seoul, together with the other KPA forces, including the 16th Armored Brigade that had suffered many losses in the previous days.
During the retreat, all the T-34-85s that had been stranded due to engine or suspension failures and had not been repaired due to lack of spare parts during the advance some months before were buried and camouflaged in strategic positions. They were used as bunkers to slow down the UN advance.
During the first day of the Pusan Perimeter Offensive, which began on September 16th, UN troops captured a total of 19 artillery pieces, 18 anti-tank guns, 9 mortars, and a self-propelled SU-76M gun that was fully operational.
On September 18th, after crossing the Naktong River, ROKA units, supported by some tanks, attacked Hill 268 south of Waegwan, which was defended by the forces of the 3rd Infantry Division of the KPA, together with some T-34-85s of the 105th Armored Division. During the evening, ROKA forces managed to capture the hill after repeated air attacks that dropped napalm and rockets on the North Korean units.
On September 19th, 1950, UN troops entered Waegwan after the North Koreans retreated. They had left on the field 22 45 mm cannons, 10 mortars, an unspecified number of small arms and 28 tanks. Those 28 tanks consisted of 27 T-34-85s destroyed or damaged and an M4A3E8 Sherman previously captured by the North Koreans and used against its former owners.
Between September 20th and 21st, the KPA lost several armored vehicles. Regiments of the North Korean 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division managed to cross the Naktong with only 23 T-34-85 and SU-76M tanks. The 107th Armored Regiment had only 14 tanks on the north bank, while the 203rd Armored Regiment had only 9 tanks. These few armored vehicles, along with a few anti-tank guns, covered the retreat of other KPA forces to Kumch’on.
On September 17th-18th, the US 70th Tank Battalion lost 10 tanks, six in minefields, two destroyed by T-34-85s, and two by Soviet-made 76 mm cannons. In one action, US tanks destroyed two out of three KPA hull-down tanks.
The fighting on Hill 351 around Tabu-dong saw another clash of armored vehicles that cost heavy losses for the US forces of the 70th Tank Battalion. On September 20th alone, this unit lost 7 armored vehicles, although North Korean losses are not known.
On September 22nd, the offensive ended with the complete defeat of the KPA units, which began a disorganized retreat towards the north.
The same day, the US Marines arrived near Seoul and began the occupation of the city on September 25th.
Before the war, Seoul was a city of about two million inhabitants, most of whom lived in shacks and huts on the outskirts of the city. The center was very modern, with concrete buildings worthy of the most famous European cities, especially along the Ma Po Boulevard, the main street of Seoul.
The approximately 20,000 Korean People’s Army soldiers of the 78th Independent Infantry Regiment, 70th Infantry Regiment, 42nd Tank Regiment, and the 107th Security Regiment, who were ordered to maintain the city, wasted no time. Before the US landing, they had created dozens, if not hundreds of barricades and anti-tank obstacles in the city’s streets to slow the advance of the UN troops.
Everything was used, bags filled with sand, stones, rubble, and, in some extreme cases, rice. Furniture and other furnishings and vehicle hulks These usually had a height of 2.5 meters and a depth of 1.5 meters. The distance between obstacles was about 200-300 meters.
The barricades were protected by barbed wire, mines and covered by 45 mm M1942 anti-tank guns and heavy machine guns. In some cases, these were M2 Brownings captured from UN troops during the advance.
The Marines arrived on the outskirts of Seoul on September 18th, starting the attack on the town of Yongdungpo west of the capital and Kimpo Airfield to the northwest. Communist resistance in Yongdungpo was heavy and only the airport was captured on 19th September.
On the night of September 19th-20th, the Marines launched a nocturnal amphibious assault from the south coast of the Han River, south of the city. Halfway through, the LVTs were hit by intense fire from the KPA troops barricaded on the fortress at Hill 125. The attack was canceled and the fortress was bombed until dawn.
At 0645 hrs, the 1st Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines attacked the hill and conquered it after 3 hours of fighting. UN troops were now less than eight miles from downtown Seoul.
Also on the morning of September 20th, in Yongdungpo, the troops of the 1st Marines, commanded by Colonel Lewis B. Puller, repelled the attack of 5 T-34-85s and the 87th regiment of the 18th KPA Infantry Division, which lost 300 soldiers.
On 21st September, given the very strong resistance of the 87th North Korean Regiment, the Marines fired white phosphorus ammunition and their planes dropped napalm bombs, razing most of the barracks to the ground and testing the North Korean resistance. However, the North Koreans did not relent until the evening, when due to the losses suffered, the scarcity of ammunition, and the low morale of the troops, the commander of the regiment ordered an organized retreat to the north.
Taking the city of Yongdungpo, the 5th Marines was able to start advancing towards Seoul from the west, while the 1st Marines organized the landing on the north coast of the Han River.
The Communist soldiers, far from leaving their positions, had occupied Hill 296. Under the command of Colonel Chan Wil Ki of the 25th Infantry Brigade, they had created a defensive line defended by about 10,000 soldiers and blocked the 5th Marines‘ way.
This was an ideal defensive position. During the Second World War, the Japanese troops stationed in Korea had used the hill and the surrounding terrain for training, so the KPA troops also had the advantage of already prepared positions.
The 5th Marines began the attack on Hill 296 at 7 am on September 22nd, with the 3rd Battalion of the US Marines, the 1st Battalion of the ROKA Marines, and the 1st Battalion of the US Marines. The 2nd Battalion of the US Marines was in reserve.
After a full day of fighting, Company H had reached the crest of Hill 296, but Chan Wil Ki‘s forces continued to hold the line south and east of the hill. The ROK Marines and 1st US Marines Battalion had to advance over open ground. Constant air support of the Chance Vought F4U Corsairs of Marine Aircraft Group 33 continued to lead the way for the Marines throughout the day.
Some pilots, under the command of Major Arnold A. Lund, stationed on the escort carrier Badoeng Strait, flew up to four sorties per day per aircraft.
As night fell, due to the difficulty of releasing napalm on KPA positions without risking hitting the Marines, the planes stopped the bombing. This left room for the 11th Marines artillery that riddled the positions throughout the night, weakening the KPA troops. These surrendered only at the first light of dawn on September 22nd.
Before continuing the advance on Seoul, the hills to the northeast of the city were cleared. The conquest of the hills meant the Marines lost 2 days and almost 200 men. The Koreans lost an unknown number of soldiers. US troops counted 1,500, but this is a partial number.
Most of these men were killed by napalm or US artillery and were from the 25th Infantry Brigade or 78th Independent Infantry Regiment. Their officers and NCOs had participated in World War II or the Chinese Civil War.
On September 25th, a symbolic date marking 3 months since the start of the war, US troops began entering Seoul from the south and west, as the ROK 17th Regiment moved east in an attempt to outflank Kim Il-sung’s barricaded troops in the city.
It took the Marines an average of an hour to clear each barricade, armed with anti-tank guns, anti-tank rifles, and heavy machine guns and protected by barbed wire and mines, as well as a few sporadic T-34s and SU-76Ms.
The Marines were slowed down by continuous shooting from Korean snipers, Molotov cocktails thrown at tanks, PPSh-41 bursts from house roofs and trees. Some sources mention the use of North Korean “suicide squads” which jumped out from the corners of houses against US tanks, but this information is not confirmed. This could have been a one-off or a desperate defense technique that is not mentioned by other sources.
By the evening of September 25th, the Marines had advanced less than 2 km, albeit with the constant support of artillery and close airstrikes that destroyed entire blocks. Despite the little progress, at 1400 hrs, it was said on radios and TVs around the world that Seoul had been liberated.
On September 26th, at around 2000 hrs, the majority of the Korean People’s Army troops started to withdraw from the city. This had by now been 65% destroyed, with thousands of civilian deaths due to dozens of air and artillery attacks.
Not all the troops withdrew, however. Some launched a counterattack against the 5th Marines, 3rd Battalion on the hills to the west and against the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marines which was advancing towards the city center from Ma Po Boulevard.
The 25th Infantry Brigade had counterattacked in the city center with the last tanks and self-propelled guns available, managing to stop the Marines from advancing but losing 4 tanks, 2 SPGs, and 250 soldiers.
Before dawn on September 26th, KPA troops also counterattacked positions on Nam-san Hill south of Seoul, occupied by the US 32nd Division. Colonel Beauchamp‘s men remained on the hill and drove the Korean soldiers back with heavy casualties.
Throughout September 26th, there were clashes along the Ma Po Bulevard with the Marines. The Americans, despite continuous launches of napalm and white phosphorus on the positions of the Communists, advanced less than 1,000 meters.
Even though, by the morning of the 27th, the Marines controlled half of the city, the conquest of the heart of the city was still long and exhausting. The main city targets, such as the embassies, the city hall, and the seat of government were falling under the control of the United Nations forces one after another.
The 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, recaptured the French embassy at 11 am on the 27th. That afternoon, the Marines retook the US embassy, and the Seoul train station was also recaptured during the heavy fighting of that day. The 5th Marines took the Government building in the middle of the afternoon.
The clashes lasted until the evening of September 27th. By the next morning, almost all North Korean soldiers had been killed or taken prisoner, even though small pockets of resistance remained in the northeast.
On September 29th, when all was quiet, General MacArthur triumphantly arrived in the city with South Korean President Syngman Rhee, symbolically returning the city to him.
The casualties of the battle between 20th and 30th September 1950 were 1,716 dead and wounded between the US Marines and ROK, for an unknown number of North Koreans. The death toll of the Korean People’s Army between 15th and 30th September was 14,000 dead and 7,000 prisoners.
The loss bulletins did not count civilians killed by napalm, white phosphorus, and artillery fire and the ones executed by ROK Military Police on charges of being communists, without having taken part in the clashes.
In the subsequent counter-offensive of the UN troops, fought between September 23rd and 30th 1950, Task Force Dolvin (an elite unit organized ad hoc for the offensive) alone destroyed or captured 19 armored vehicles, 16 anti-tank guns, 65 tons of ammunition, and captured or killed 1,100 KPA soldiers, losing only 3 tanks to anti-tank mines.
In the same period, Task Force Lynch, created on September 21st, with 7 M4A3E8 Shermans of Company C of the 70th Tank Battalion, captured 4 T-34-85s, 50 US trucks (previously captured by KPA troops), about 20 artillery pieces, and a total of about 500 KPA prisoners, losing only two Shermans hit by a 76 mm gun at Naksong-dong.
During the night of September 26th, the 3rd Tank Platoon of Company C of the 70th Tank Battalion, under the command of Task Force Lynch, met the Marines of X Marines Corps south of Suwon, but lost contact with the other units of Task Force Lynch, which ended up under attack.
The 2nd Tank Platoon was attacked by 10 T-34-85s that had accidentally encountered the US troops. Two M4A3E8 Shermans were quickly knocked out by 2 T-34-85s but were later destroyed by a third M4. The first T-34-85 just happened to end up in the middle of the advancing column of US vehicles. The crew wasted no time and started to crush at least 15 vehicles, including Jeeps and trucks under the 32 tons of the vehicle, but they were stopped by a 105 mm howitzer which hit it at very close range, only 11 meters.
Four more T-34s were destroyed by the fire of anti-tank teams and the last three tanks fled, two of which were destroyed by tanks of the 70th Tank Battalion along the road between the villages of Habung-Ni and Pyeongtaek.
On September 23rd, the American 24th Division attacked towards Taejon-Seoul, but was ambushed by the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armoured Division, which cost the Americans three M46 Pattons. In the afternoon of the same day, the Koreans lost 3 T-34-85 in an air attack.
Between September 23rd and 24th, some North Korean reinforcements arrived from the north to Kumch’on along with some T-34s, and the battle for the control of the city began. Six M46 Pattons were lost during the battle, while the KPA lost 5 T-34s in an air attack and 3 during the clashes between armored vehicles.
In the city of Taejon, the fighting was very violent and US reports of North Korean losses were unclear and exaggerated. The US ground forces reported 13 tanks of the Korean People’s Army destroyed (3 by Bazooka fire) while the USAF reported 20 tanks destroyed.
On September 28th, 10 T-34-85s were encountered in the vicinity of the city of P’yongt’aek. 5 were destroyed by airstrikes and 2 by anti-tank ground fire.
Breakthrough the 38th parallel and Pyongyang conquest
On September 30th, the US and ROKA offensive against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea began with the crossing of the 38th parallel. The North Koreans put up a strenuous resistance by any means, even if the US advance seemed unstoppable.
On October 12th, a group of North Korean tanks attacked the positions of B Company of the 70th Tank Battalion near Songhyon-ni. Lieutenant D. Brewery, the tank commander of an M4A3E8 Sherman, reported that his vehicle fired at a T-34-85 at 50 m without penetrating it, then at 20 m again without penetrating it, then the Korean tank collided with the Sherman. As soon as they recovered from the collision, the driver of the Sherman reversed and moved back a few meters, allowing the gunner to fire a third shot, which surprisingly again did not penetrate the frontal armor of the tank but damaged the gun.
The North Korean crew did not lose heart and, although their vehicle was on fire, they accelerated again and hit the Sherman for a second time, but the fourth shot put it out of action.
On 11th October 1950, after a brief confrontation with the 1st ROKA Infantry Division, the 17th Tank Division was forced to retreat to the north again. The division arrived in Sinanju with stops in Pyongyang and Sukch’on. On October 18th, the unit was reorganized and shipped south to the banks of the Ch’ongch’on River.
After a joint US-Commonwealth attack on October 23rd, 1950, which led to the conquest of Sinanju and a brief firefight against the 27th Commonwealth Brigade, the 17th Division retreated again, crossing the Taeryong River and repositioning itself in Chongju to defend the Pakch’on-Chongju road.
According to documentation captured at the time, the Korean People’s Army17th Tank Division possessed 20 T-34-85s, 12 SU-76Ms and 7 76 mm ZIS-3 guns. 4 T-34s and some SU-76Ms were in a defensive position along the west bank of the Taeryong River, opposite the Pakch’on town.
The 2nd Infantry Battalion, with some SU-76Ms and some 76 mm cannons, defended the north bank of the Taeryong River.
The 3rd Infantry Battalion, with 10 T-34-85s, defended the coast near Chongju from possible amphibious landings. The Logistics Brigade, with the remaining SU-76Ms, defended Chongju and the headquarters. 6 reserve T-34-85s were positioned at a height halfway between the two cities.
The first clash took place on the night between 25th and 26th October, when the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment of the 27th Commonwealth Brigade crossed the Taeryong River, meeting at 0400 hrs with a reconnaissance unit commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Kim In-sik in the Battle of Broken Bridge. Companies A and B of the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) were attacked by North Korean troops supported by two T-34-85s of the 17th Armored Brigade. The North Koreans managed to create havoc among the Australian units that could not counter the tanks because the rocket ignition system of their 2.6-inch Bazookas jammed due to poor maintenance. Despite the lack of bazookas, after several hours of fighting, the North Korean troops withdrew, losing 150 soldiers, of which 100 were killed and 50 taken prisoner.
UN sources report that, just south of Pyongyang, the Australians of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, supported by D Company of the 70th Tank Battalion, encountered two T-34-85s and a SU-76M. One T-34 camouflaged in a haystack was destroyed by Sherman fire, while the other two vehicles were abandoned by their crews after the firefight.
In 5 days of fighting along the 32 km of the defensive line between Chongju in the west and Pakch’on in the east, the 17th Tank Division lost all 23 T-34-85s (some arrived in the following days to support the resistance) and six SU-76Ms. performing an excellent slowdown action of UN troops.
The 3rd RAR War Diary states that North Korean resistance in the region was admirable. The T-34-85 commanders were able to exploit the terrain to their advantage and camouflaged their vehicles so as not to be seen even a few hundred meters away in broad daylight.
The Battle of Chongju, fought between October 29th and 30th, 1950, saw fighting between the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment supported by the US 89th Tank Regiment equipped with M4A3E8 Shermans and the North Korean 17th Tank Brigade. The battle began at 1000 hours on November 29th. Due to the dense bush in which Korean tanks defended themselves, air support was immediately called in. By 1400 hours, F-51s of the No. 77 Squadron RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) reported having destroyed 7 T-34-85s and 2 SU-76Ms, although these claims seem to have been exaggerated. A number of T-34s were destroyed by M4A3E8 Sherman tanks on the ground, one was destroyed by fire when the Australians hit its external fuel tank and three others were destroyed at short range by 3.5 in. Bazooka fire.
In total, that day, 11 T-34-85s and 2 SU-76M were destroyed.
On the evening of October 30th, the 21st Regimental Combat Team of the US 24th Infantry Division advanced west from Chongju. It got to about 2 km west from Kwaksan when it ended up in an ambush that soon turned into a skirmish that lasted all day and led to the destruction of 7 T -34-85s, 1 SU-76M, seven 76 mm guns, about 50 dead and 2 T-34-85 captured on flatcars along a railroad.
The 21st Regimental Combat Team continued the advance towards the coastal road going northwards, arriving at Ch’onggo-dong on 31st October.
On 1st November, the KPA counterattacked with approximately 500 troops and 7 T-34-85s. In the ensuing clash, all seven Korean tanks were destroyed or knocked out by US tanks, and about a fifth of the soldiers were lost to US fire.
The 21st Regimental Combat Team found it difficult to maintain the position and retreated further south, arriving north of the Ch’ongch’on River. The 17th Tank Division had managed to slow down and eventually stop the UN troops by denying them access to Sinuiju. There, the 105th “Seoul” Tank Division was re-equipping and retraining. All this came at the cost of 39 T-34-85s, 7 SU-76Ms, 7 ZIS-3s, and about 1,000 soldiers lost in 7 days.
During the defense of Pyongyang, between October 17th and 19th, only a few T-34-85s were encountered, some in hull-down positions outside the city and a few others inside the capital.
Company A of the 6th Tank Battalion, equipped with M46 Pattons, encountered 8 T-34-85s and a SU-76M on October 22nd, destroying them all in a short firefight and capturing 8 other T-34s abandoned by their crews shortly before.
On October 23rd, at Kunu-ri, the 6th Division of the Republic of Korea Army captured two KPA trains carrying ammunition, food and a total of eight tanks. A little further north, at Huich’on, that same night, the 6th Division captured 20 T-34s abandoned in a depot, almost all of them intact.
The Chinese intervention and the KPA counteroffensive
On the same day on which Pyongyang was conquered, the Chinese People’s Volunteers Army (PVA), commanded by General Peng Dehuai and 270,000 men strong, crossed the border between China and Korea, fording the Yalu River in great secrecy. On October 25th, the PVA clashed for the first time with UN troops, defeating the troops of the 10th Infantry Regiment of the 6th Infantry Division assigned to the ROK II Corps. Later, in the Battles of Unsan and Ch’ongch’on, it managed to defeat U.S. units and other UN forces.
In the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, supported by the 17th Tank Division, defeated several UN units, forcing them to retreat. Some of them included the US 1st Cavalry Division, 24th Infantry Division (including the 21st Regimental Combat Team), 27th Commonwealth Brigade, the Turkish Brigade, and the 6th, 7th and 8th ROKA Infantry Divisions of the South Korean II Corps.
From this date onwards, while the armored forces of the Korean People’s Army took part in subsequent battles, the amount of vehicles used, their actual use, and losses in the field are not known exactly. Many sources report the numbers of tanks destroyed without mentioning whether they were Chinese or Korean.
On October 28th, during the Battle of Chongju, the 3rd RAR destroyed 3 T-34-85s with Bazookas. A fourth one was destroyed by Private John Stafford, who fired his Bren gun at the external tanks of the tank, setting them on fire.
On October 29th, it was reported that an armored regiment of the Korean People’s Army supported the actions of soldiers of the Chinese 124th Infantry Division. During the following days, “two North Korean tanks” (unsure if they were KPA or PVA vehicles) were destroyed by an F4U airstrike near the city of Kilchu that was just recaptured by the Communist troops.
On November 7th, a USAF pilot reported the destruction of 6 tanks, 3 BA-64 armored cars, and 45 unarmored vehicles near Pakchon. According to some sources, these were vehicles of the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division.
By November 17th, it is reported that 7 more T-34s and two SU-76Ms were destroyed thanks to airstrikes and supporting fire from US ships anchored near the east coast of the Korean peninsula.
Not much information is available regarding North Korean use of other T-34-85s prior to the counteroffensive south of the 38th parallel.
Almost all the KPA units, thanks to the intervention of the PVA, could be reorganized. They were recalled to the fields of Sinuiju in the west, Kanggye in the center, and Hoeryong in the east of the DPRK for new training and re-equipment.
Offensive South of the 38th Parallel and Third Battle of Seoul
During the Battle of Ch’ongch’on River, fought between November 25th and December 2nd, 1950, the UN troops suffered a defeat and retreated south of the 38th parallel. Mao Zedong, leader of the People’s Republic of China, then became convinced that he could force the enemy troops to retreat to the coast of the South and ordered Peng Dehuai to cross the 38th parallel in pursuit of the enemy.
Between December 11th and 31st, there was a cease-fire that was interrupted by the Chinese offensive. The ROKA forces stationed on the 38th parallel suffered heavy losses and, by January 1st, 1951, they were all annihilated or forced to retreat.
In the third battle for Seoul, the fighting mostly took place against Chinese PVA troops and it is not clear whether the KPA forces that took part in the battle included armored regiments equipped with T-34-85s. Out of fear that the Chinese and Koreans could outflank the UN troops in the city, the evacuation began as early as January 1st.
The Communist troops managed to knock out or destroy several Cromwell Mk. VII tanks (even managing to capture some of them), and at least one Churchill Mk. VII of the 29th Infantry Brigade.
By January 4th, UN forces had been pushed back to a defensive line 9-12 km south of the Han River and the city of Seoul. The order was to hold out until the troops and ammunition were cleared from Incheon and then the engineers destroyed any remaining structures or equipment, including 6 million liters of fuel, 12 rail cars full of ammunition, and some tanks that could not be evacuated due to lack of space on ships docked in the harbor.
The conquest of Seoul was a great victory for the communist troops of the Korean People’s Army and the People’s Volunteer Army. It gave even more confidence to the Chinese generals, even if the supplies available were no longer enough to support an advance. In fact, at the end of January, the UN troops had stopped the communist advance, and, with Operation Thunderbolt launched on January 25th, they were able to advance again.
Between February 20th and March 6th, during Operation Killer, they were able to return to the banks of the Han River, even if Seoul remained firmly in the hands of the Chinese and the North Koreans.
In mid-November, the 17th Tank Division, which had until now followed the PVA, was recalled to Sinuiju to replace the losses. New recruits were assigned to the division, which was renamed 17th Mechanized Brigade, along with 20 new T-34-85s, 10 BA-64s, and some 82 mm mortars.
After a rest period in mid-January, the new 17th Mechanized Brigade was assigned to the 1st Corps and shipped south via Pyongyang and arrived in Seoul in February. It remained in Seoul until mid-March, acting as a reserve for the 1st Corps and being equipped with new material, becoming the 17th Mechanized Division, with only 20 T-34-85s, 6-12 SU-76Ms, and some 120 mm and 82 mm mortars.
In the furious battles of Operation Thunderbolt, Operation Killer, and the subsequent Operation Ripper between March 7th and April 4th, which led to the recapture of Seoul on March 16th, there are no precise numbers on how many armored vehicles were lost by PVA or KPA troops.
Obviously, the 17th Mechanized Division withdrew along with the rest of the Communist troops north of the Imjin River, being replaced in the first line by the 19th Infantry Division. It was then assigned to the IVth Corps, with anti-landing duties along the west coast of the peninsula. On 6th July 1951, the unit replaced the 19th Infantry Division in the 1st Corps but remained on its positions on the east coast.
The division was now under the command of Major General Chong Ch’ol-u. It maintained its positions, receiving few more materials. By November 1951, according to UN intelligence, it had risen to 6,600 men, but had few tanks and SPGs.
In the subsequent Chinese-Korean offensive between April 22nd and May 20th, 1951, which failed to recapture Seoul, tanks were rarely encountered by UN troops. In the few cases where they were encountered, they were under Chinese insignia and command. A notable exception to this was the Battle of the Injim River, where Centurion Mark III tanks of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars and some M24 Chaffees of the 10th Battalion Combat Team of the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea resisted the North Korean and Chinese attack supported by T-34-85s.
To this day, the battle is a source of contention. The UN troops were defeated with 158 casualties and approximately 1,000 prisoners but managed to slow the Chinese and North Korean troops enough to create a defensive line around Seoul.
On May 20th, the UN Counter Offensive began, which lasted until July 1st, 1951, and was the last major offensive of the Korean War before the two-year stalemate. During the Offensive, the 1st and 2nd Corps and the 5th Korean People’s Army Corps took part in the clashes. Within these corps, there were armored regiments equipped with T-34-85s, but due to previous defeats and the difficulty faced by the North Koreans in supplying fresh troops, none of these regiments had a complete staff. It is assumed that some of these units were not really equipped with armored vehicles but kept the name for propaganda purposes.
Period of stalemate
On July 1st, 1951 began the so-called phase of stalemate that lasted for two years, until July 1953. The front lines had arrived approximately where they were at the beginning of the war. In the east of the Korean peninsula, the front lines of the UN forces were north of the 38th parallel, but in the west of the peninsula, the communist troops held firmly a part south of the 38th parallel.
During the stalemate phase, US strategic bombing of the area north of the 38th parallel continued weakening the already exhausted armies of the Korean People’s Army and the People’s Volunteers Army, hitting supplies and any depot or factory that was detected.
In 1951, while waiting for the Soviets to re-equip them, the armored units of the KPA were reorganized. The 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division was renamed the 105th ‘Seoul’ Mechanized Division and the 10th Mechanized Division was formed, but it was not yet equipped with tanks.
According to a Soviet report from December 1951, the 17th Mechanized Division was dissolved and its materials transferred to the 105th “Seoul” Tank Division. According to UN intelligence, the unit remained active until February 1952, when its tank battalion was transferred to the 10th Mechanized Division. The rest of the division was then dissolved. It is more plausible that, after the removal of the armored unit, the division became the 17th Infantry Division.
The Soviet reinforcements were not as large as hoped and, in 1951, the KPA had only 77 T-34-85s and 63 SU-76Ms at its disposal. It was therefore decided to dissolve the divisions and create six tank regiments to be included in the ranks of six infantry divisions.
The Chinese could not supply many armored vehicles to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In fact, by May 1950, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had only 300 T-34-85s, 60 IS-2s and 40 ISU-122s.
Most of the armored vehicles sent to the front were destroyed by bombing before they even arrived, so there was little fighting between armored vehicles between July 1951 and July 1953.
The only noteworthy battles in which KPA forces took part, probably supported by T-34-85s (even if western sources do not mention ‘tanks’), were the Battle of Bloody Ridge fought between August and September 1951, the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge between September and October 1951 and the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, one of the last battles fought between April and July 1953.
On 27th July 1953, the day of the end of the Korean War, the units of the armored forces of the Korean People’s Army had increased to 7 armored regiments, the 104th, 105th ‘Seoul’, 106th, 107th, 109th, 206th, and 208th, with a total of 255 T-34-85s and 127 SU-76Ms, and approximately the same personnel numbers as at the beginning of the war.
According to this data, the T-34-85 was, at least in theory, superior to tanks such as the Cromwell Mark VIII and the M24 Chaffee, at about the same level as the M4A3E8 and the Comet and obviously inferior to other UN tanks, like the M26 and Centurion. The Churchill was an exception, because it was inferior to the T-34 in firepower, but its armor made it a tough opponent. In practice, the matters were very different. The tankers of the Korean People’s Army and the Volunteer People’s Army were poorly trained compared to their UN counterparts and this unbalanced every battle in favor of the UN troops.
To give an example, the possibility of hitting a target on the first shot for the KPA troops was 50% within 320 m, 23% within 680 m, 25% within 1,000 m, and nill over 1,000 m. For the Americans, the possibility of hitting a target on the first shot was 84% within 320 m and 16% over 1,000 m.
In some cases, the Chinese and Korean T-34 crews were so poorly trained that, during combat, they fired HE rounds instead of armor-piercing rounds at the enemy thanks they were engaging.
Obviously, there were other vehicles during the Korean War, such as the M4A2E8 Sherman and some 17-pdr. SP Achilles (M10 GMC rearmed with 17-pdr cannon) in service with the Canadian Army and the M36 Jackson in service with the ROKA, but the former had the same characteristics as the M4A3E8 Sherman and the latter did not participate in any major action in the war.
Data on Korean tank losses
After the UN Pusan Perimeter Offensive, in the period from September 26th to October 21st, 1950, seven teams traveled every road that could be traveled by armored vehicles from the Pusan Perimeter to the 38th parallel. This survey was meant to discover the number of armored vehicles lost by the Korean People’s Army between June 25th and October 21st, 1950. It revealed 239 destroyed or abandoned T-34-85s tanks and 74 self-propelled SU-76Ms guns since the war began. The same survey counted 136 U.S. tanks destroyed and unrecovered.
The survey found that airstrikes destroyed 102 T-34-85 tanks (43%). Of these, 60 (25%) were knocked out by napalm bombs. 59 T-34-85s were abandoned (25%) with no visible evidence of damage. 39 T-34-85s were destroyed by UN tanks or artillery (16%) and Bazooka fire destroyed 13 tanks (5%).
Of the remaining 26 (11%) T-34-85s destroyed, 12 (4.6%) were destroyed by cannon fire from US Navy ships, a very small number had been disabled or destroyed by mines, and the remainder were lost “not to military causes”.
By April 1952, another 57 hulls were identified, for a total of 296 T-34-85s known to have been destroyed in South Korea. It should be noted that the Bazooka fire had actually hit many more vehicles and put them out of action but, often, the UN armored forces on the battlefield mistook them for working vehicles, hitting them again, often destroying them completely.
In general, pilots of the United States Air Force (USAF) also often hit North Korean T-34-85s that had already been destroyed by infantry or tanks on the ground, mistaking them for working vehicles because of the speed at which they flew over the ground. This type of error was exacerbated by poor visibility on the ground, which could also cause pilots to mistake trucks or armored cars for tanks.
For these reasons, in 1950 alone, USAF pilots claimed to have destroyed 857 tanks, which became 1,256 destroyed and 1,298 damaged by June 1952. Marine Corps pilots claimed another 123 destructions and, finally, 163 tanks destroyed and 161 damaged were reported by US Navy pilots.
The credited number of UN tanks destroyed between July and September 1950 was 136, of which 95 (70%) were destroyed by Soviet-made North Korean anti-tank mines.
The number of armored vehicles destroyed during the UN Offensive in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is unclear, although some sources state that another 313 tanks were knocked out, destroyed, or captured and then blown up so as not to end up back in Communist hands. At first glance, this may seem like an overestimate or exaggeration, but when one considers that UN troops captured several North Korean depots where many T-34s lay intact and abandoned, this number is plausible.
A US Army report from 1954 states that, in total, there were 119 tank vs. tank actions, of which 104 involved US troops and 15 involved US Marine Corp armored vehicles against KPA and PVA forces during the Korean War. From these encounters, some 97 T-34-85 tanks were reported to have been knocked out and another 18 considered probable against 4 M24 Chaffees, 16 M4A3E8 Shermans, 6 M26 Pershings, and 8 M46 Patton tanks knocked out, of which only 15 were irreparable.
Of those 119 actions, only 24 were fought against more than 3 T-34-85s together. In terms of which UN tanks were most likely to engage in tank vs tank combat, the breakdown in the report was that 59 were fought with M4A3E8 Shermans (50%), 38 with M26 Pershings (32%), 12 with the more modern M46 Pattons (10%) and, finally, 10 with the light M24 Chaffees (8%), which proved too vulnerable.
The M4A3E8 was credited with destroying 41 T-34-85s between August and November 1950.
After the War
While the few ISU-122s received from China after the war were quickly decommissioned from service in the Korean People’s Army due to the few spare parts available and the small number in Korean possession, the T-34-85s, the few T-34-76s, and 12 IS-2s continued to serve in the ranks of Kim Il-Sung’s army.
In the years after the war, the Soviet Union supplied the DPRK with other batches of T-34-85s. It is estimated that, by the end of the 1950s, the Korean People’s Army had about 1,000 T-34-85s in service, remaining the main (and only) tank of the KPA. If this figure is true, it can be assumed that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea received a total of about 1,800-1,900 T-34-85s in the decade between the late 40s and the late 50s.
This high number of vehicles was kept in service at least until the mid-1960s when large numbers of T-54s, T-55s, and Type 59s began arriving in the country. This allowed some T-34s to go into the second line, although a very high number remained in service into the 1970s, joining the more modern T-62s from 1971 and the Chonmas in 1978.
In 1985, there were still about ten armored battalions equipped with T-34-85s in the ranks of the Korean People’s Army, which means that about 400 tanks were still in service. Other sources mention 650 T-34-85s still in service in the mid-1980s.
Some sources claim that, in the years following the war, the Korean People’s Army converted some T-34s into Armored Recovery Vehicles (ARVs) by removing the turret. This theory could be another wrong one, exactly like the one that claims that the KPA owns 100 SU-100. It cannot be demonstrated with photographic evidence.
More modern times
After 1969, the same road wheels produced after the Second World War in the Soviet Union appeared on the T-34-85s, called ‘Starfish’ models, with a larger diameter. Apparently, the North Koreans produce an indigenous version without visible differences from the Chinese one.
In the last years of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the few T-34-85s still in service were modified by the Korean People’s Army with all-steel tracks produced in Korea, also used on the North Korean copy of Soviet and Chinese Main Battle Tanks, along with new sprocket wheels. The hull and turret received slat-armor mounts to increase the tank’s protection against High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) projectiles and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM), also mounted on the T-54s and T-55s still in service.
The Soviet-era radio system was probably also replaced with a more modern one. A snorkel system that could be mounted on North Korean T-34-85s was also developed. Looking at the ball mount for the machine gun in the hull, it can be seen that the barrel does not look like the usual DT-27, so it can be assumed that the machine gun has been replaced with a more modern model to increase the rate of fire (as some KPA units still use DP-27, infantry version of DT) or that the machine gun has been removed and the barrel is fake.
As far as it is known, the KPA never developed a new range of 85 mm ammunition. It is still using or producing under license the same Soviet 85 mm ammunition that was almost certainly used on the M1981 Shin’heung light amphibious tank and on the tank destroyer variant of the 323 Armored Personnel Carrier.
In 1996, according to some sources, there were still about 250 T-34-85s in reserve. As of 2021, it seems that there are still some used for training, even if the exact number and location remain unknown.
Although in the collective imagination, ‘North Korea’ may seem an almost absurd nation, based on the most extreme nationalism and the cult of personality, its army is not devoid of common sense. It is hard to imagine that even the most indoctrinated of KPA generals do not know that T-34-85s are now more than obsolete for modern warfare and can envisage what would happen if they ever came face to face with an M1A2 Abrams or a K2 Black Panther. This begs the question as to why there are still a number of them in reserve in 2021?
There are many ways in which a T-34-85 can be used in the event of war. Firstly, for training duties, as they are cheap and easy to maintain. In the event that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea declares war on the Republic of Korea, thinking of T-34-85s crossing the Demilitarized Zone on the front lines supported by artillery fire is a bit anachronistic, but, using them to patrol newly conquered territories to keep any rebel groups at bay, escort convoys of supplies, in urban locations, for police duties, patrolling against paratroopers in the area north of the 38th parallel or for hypothetical support of more modern vehicles in some actions would not be so absurd.
Another plausible scenario is a possible defense of the peninsula north of the 38th parallel in case it is invaded. Taking advantage of the terrain of the peninsula, the T-34-85s could be positioned in well-camouflaged hull-down positions and ambush the assailant troops, forcing them to fight for every meter of land, thus leading to a kind of asymmetrical war that is often seen in the Middle East. A very clear idea of how this scenario could be is the Soviet-Afghan War fought between 1979 and 1989, where a well-organized militia managed to resist one of the best armies in the world using to its advantage the terrain and taking advantage of every possibility to inflict the greatest number of losses to the Soviets.
In the early years of the new millennium, North Korean T-34-85s were rarely seen. The last public appearance of an armored unit equipped with these vehicles was in 2009, when it participated in a military parade on Kim Il-sung Street in Pyongyang. In 2012, a T-34-76 was seen during a DPRK documentary during an urban combat exercise.
According to analysts, since 2017, the T-34-85 has been removed from service in the Korean People’s Army, although some examples will likely still be in service with the Worker-Peasant Red Guards (Paramilitary militia for civil defense founded in 1959) or in reserve.
The DPRK is not the only nation to have in service or to have withdrawn from service a few years ago the T-34-85. In fact, at least the following nations still have in service a certain amount: 45 are still used by the People’s Army of Vietnam for training, Guinea still has 30 operational, 10 are used by Guinea-Bissau Army, and Cuba also still has a certain number of them in active service. Other nations, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Namibia have a number of T-34-85s in reserve and finally, in Yemen and Syria, some T-34-85s have also been seen engaged in their ongoing and bloody civil wars.
Although the T-34-85 had a balanced speed/armament/armor ratio, the poorly trained Korean People’s Army did not know how to use it against their enemies during the Korean War, leading to the Western misconception that the vehicles were inferior to their US counterparts.
A key factor that affected North Korean losses was the almost constant threat from the air. Airstrikes by UN pilots proved to be very effective on almost every occasion. Kim Il-Sung’s Army was also forced by the scarce amount of tanks provided by the Soviets and the Chinese to use the T-34-85 in small assaults often composed of less than 3 tanks, canceling the advantages the tank had over some of the UN tanks it would go up against.
8.15 x 3.00 x 2.72 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
5, driver, machine gunner, commander, gunner and loader
12 cylinders diesel engine V-2, 500 hp with 556 liters
55 km/h on road
85 mm ZIS-S-53 L/54.6 with 60 rounds; 2x 7.62 mm DT machine guns
47 mm hull front, 46 mm sides and rear.
90 mm turret front, 75 mm sides and 52 mm rear.
20 mm roof and floor.
North Korea (late 1970s/early 1980s – today)
Amphibious light tank – unknown number built (500 sometimes mentioned)
North Korea maintains one of the most peculiar large scale military industries of the modern world. Though the most famous of the country’s vehicles are without a doubt the main battle tanks – the Chonma-ho and Songun-Ho – North Korea actually manufactures a very wide range of vehicles, from self-propelled artillery pieces to light armored personnel carriers. An interesting vehicle in North Korea’s arsenal, and one which may have played a pivotal role in the development of North Korea’s military industry, is the M1981 Shin’heung, an amphibious light tank also known as the M1985 (its name given by the US Department of Defence) or the PT-85 (a popular name given due to the vehicle’s often greatly exaggerated link to the PT-76).
The sources of North Korea’s military and tank industry
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), often just known as North Korea, was formed following the capitulation of Japan. The Soviet Union came to control the northern half of Korea. The state was solidified after the 1950-1953 Korean War led to a stalemate, with both pro-American South Korea and pro-Soviet North remaining in place.
The North Koreans quickly began to develop a form of arms industry. As early as 1949, they began the manufacture of the Type 49 submachine gun, a copy of the Soviet PPSh-41. Their production of firearms continued through the 1950s and 1960s, to include the Type 58, an AK copy, as well as some of the first “indigenous” weapons, or at least some of the first to differ from the Soviet arsenal. Introduced in 1964, the Type 64 pistol was a close copy of the old Belgian FN 1900, an odd choice for a new pistol. It was most likely inspired by the pistol’s symbolic role as a common pistol in 1900-1940s Asia, which was employed by Korean partisans against Japanese rule.
The production of armored vehicles appears to have started in the 1970s. This coincides with North Korea raising military expenses after those had been kept at a moderate level throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, as well as the country being forced to assert its independence from the Soviet Union due to the Sino-Soviet Split complicating North Korea’s relations with the two larger communist powers on its borders.
Up to this point, North Korea had merely used vehicles supplied by the Soviet Union or China, but this option started to appear fairly unreliable as it was questionable whether the Soviets or Chinese would provide modern weaponry, seeing as North Korea was trying to keep balanced relations between the two communist powers that were now bitter rivals.
The Korean People’s Army adopted a locally-produced version of China’s Type 63/YW531 in the early 1970s, the vehicle appearing to be designated as “323” in North Korea (though it is often called VTT-323 by western enthusiasts), and being given the name of M1973 (after the year it was first observed) by the American Department of Defence. It already incorporated some significant differences from the original vehicle, such as an additional road wheel, as well as a turret armed with twin KPV 14.5 mm machine-guns.
It also appears that, at least to an extent, two large orders of tanks from the Soviet Union were produced and assembled in North Korea – an order for 1,000 T-54s, passed in 1966 and delivered from 1967 to 1974, and another order for 1,000 T-55s, passed in 1970 and delivered from 1972 to 1982.
It also appears that a local production run of the PT-76B, or more likely simply the final assembly of vehicles otherwise produced in the Soviet Union, took place in the 1970s. The place of this PT-76 production run was most likely the Ryu Kyong-su Tank Factory, in Sinhung county – the latter name Sinhung or Shin’heung often being associated to the vehicles which would be produced in this factory (typically amphibious vehicles such as the 323 and obviously the M1981).
The Shin’heung appears
The M1981 Shin’heung amphibious tank appears to have been developed in this context, and it took inspiration from a variety of vehicles North Korea had previously acquired or even produced locally – the 323 and PT-76, but also perhaps the T-54/T-55 and the Type 63 amphibious tank.
As is typically the case for North Korea, the vehicle’s development is completely unknown in the West, and the vehicle’s existence was known for the first time when lines of Shin’heung paraded down Kim-Il-Sung square in Pyongyang – this being on the parade for the 40th anniversary of the Fatherland Liberation War, in 1985, leading to the vehicle first being designated as M1985 by the American Department of Defence. The vehicle is theorized to have actually originated in the late 1970s or the early 1980s, with the North Korean designation seemingly being “M1981 Shin’heung”.
Observing the vehicle, though, can lead to some amount of guessing as to how the vehicle was developed, or rather, which vehicles it took inspiration from. The Shin’heung is often thought, in popular imagination, to be a mere copy of the Soviet PT-76, merely refitted with an 85 mm gun. This is not helped by the popularity of the “PT-85” name for the vehicle. In practice though, North Korea’s design is quite different from the Soviet one. Its hull is based on the one of the 323, though largely modified, and while the turret clearly takes inspiration from the Soviet tanks, it is clearly not the same design either.
Hull Design: From APC to amphibious tank
The hull of the M1981 Shin’heung is based on the 323, which, from the 1970s onward, has been produced in large numbers by North Korea, appearing to be the country’s standard armored personnel carrier.
Major modifications had to be undertaken to turn this fairly diminutive armored personnel carrier hull into an amphibious tank. The most notable was the vehicle is considerably lengthened. The original YW531 was 5.48 m long, but while accurate measurements of the M1981 are not known in the West, the vehicle is clearly longer than the 323. Another road wheel was added, bringing the total to 6, and an estimation places the vehicle at a length of about 7.60 m based on the various available photos. The vehicle also appears to have been widened to an extent, notably over the fenders, and incorporates sloped sides – it appears the width went up from 2.98 m on the 323 to around 3.10 m on the M1981.
The hull appears to have been lowered to an extent – a quite logical course of action, seeing as the troop compartment was removed. The rear of the hull was considerably changed to accommodate the change of purpose. The rear doors for the infantry were removed, and a hydrojet, of a design similar to the PT-76’s, was added on each side. The radiator of the engine appears to be installed at the rear as well, with the exhaust on the roof of the rear hull.
The exact engine which is used on the M1981 Shin’heung is unknown. The original Chinese YW531 is known to use an 8-cylinder, 320 hp air-cooled and turbocharged diesel engine, the KHD BF8L 413F, and it is possible this engine may have been retained on the M1981. A 6-cylinder water-cooled diesel producing 240 hp is sometimes mentioned as an alternative. As for the suspension, the vehicle appears to have torsion bars similar to those found on the 323. The M1981 lacks the fenders covering the upper part of the suspension and tracks. The tracks are similar to those found on the 323 and PT-76. The hull appears to be home to one crewman, the driver, seated at the front right of the hull. He has a number of episcopes at his disposal in order to view the outside of the vehicle, as well as an openable hatch.
The vehicle, with the turret included, is estimated to weigh in at around 20 tons, and a maximum speed of around 60 km/h is sometimes mentioned – which would make it similar to China’s Type 63 amphibious tank, and about 15 km/h faster than the PT-76. The speed on water is estimated to be around 10km/h – the same as the PT-76, with which the M1981 likely shares the hydrojet design. A range of about 500 km has also been estimated.
The armor values of the M1981’s hull are unknown but are likely similar to vehicles such as the PT-76, 323, or Type 63. This would give it armor somewhere between 10 and 20 mm in thickness, likely able to only resist rifle-caliber projectiles and artillery shrapnel, as is typically expected of a light amphibious tank.
A number of tools are stored on the sides of the hull. When first shown in 1985, the M1981 featured four headlights, two on each side, installed towards the front, though new light configurations have appeared since then. Spare track links are often seen on the sides of the vehicle as well.
Turret design and armament: Multiple inspirations
The M1981 features a horseshoe-shaped turret. Though it may seem vaguely similar to the PT-76’s in general shape, it appears to be higher, with the armor plates sloped inward at a lower angle than on the Soviet vehicle. Most details are also quite different. The turret features a notable bulge on the rear-right of the turret to accommodate the commander’s cupola, which includes a number of episcopes. Instead of a large, single hatch, the M1981 features two, one on the rear right (in the commander’s cupola) and one on the rear left. Rounded in shape, those hatches are fairly similar to those found on the T-54, which North Korea may have produced in the late 1960s and 1970s. The turret has a flat section at the front, where the main gun is installed, alongside a coaxial machine-gun to the right and a vision port to the left. Circular hand grips can be found on the sides of the turret. Including the turret, the M1981 appears to be about 2.80 m high.
The main armament of the M1981 is an 85 mm gun. It is very likely based on the Chinese Type 62-85TC rifled gun, present on the Type 62 and Type 63 light tanks, which North Korea is known to have used from the 1970s onward. The guns generally look similar, though there are some differences. The bore evacuator is further back on the North Korean model, which may be caused by the gun being longer altogether.
The ammunition used by the Chinese gun, and thus likely North Korea’s version as well, is the 85×629 mmR, the same caliber as the WW2-era Soviet 85 mm used in later models of the T-34 as well as the SU-85. China is known to produce a variety of ammunition for the gun, comprising AP, APHE, HE, Frag-HE, HEAT, APFSDS-T and smoke rounds. It is quite likely North Korea has access to some, if not all of these rounds, and produces some locally, seeing as the same shells can also be fired from the country’s T-34-85 fleet. The quantity of ammunition the vehicle may carry is unknown. The coaxial machine gun used is of an unknown model, though the PKT is a potential candidate.
As for the crew, the M1981 appears to house two crewmen in the turret, a commander and a gunner. It has, however, sometimes been mentioned that the vehicle could house a third turret crewman, a loader. While all photos of the vehicle in parades only show two crewmen standing out of the turret, the seemingly larger size of the M1981’s turret in comparison to the PT-76 may perhaps be able to house an additional loader.
When first shown in 1985, the M1981 featured an additional weapon: a Malyutka missile launcher, either the Soviet 9M14 or the North-Korean produced model, the Susong-Po. This missile was mounted on top of the turret, behind the main gun. It has, however, only been observed on the M1981 once, during the 1985 parade. Since then, no photos of the vehicle show it armed with a Malyutka. Though it is possible the missile may be fitted back onto the vehicle if need be, it has been theorized that giving the M1981 a missile for the 1985 parade was done with the goal of spreading misinformation on the vehicle’s actual capabilities, without the M1981 actually being adapted to fire the Malyutka. It is sometimes claimed the vehicle may be fitted with a 14.5 mm KPV heavy machine-gun on an anti-aircraft mount. Though this would not be an unusual feature on a North Korean vehicle, it has never been observed on the M1981.
Service of the M1981
The M1981 Shin’heung has been operational in the Korean People’s Army (KPA) since the early 1980s. The vehicle is generally understood to have fulfilled an important role in the offensive-minded KPA of the pre-1990s: South Korea is a country comprising a large number of rivers, which considerably complicate operations for heavier, non-amphibious tanks, such as the various models of Chonma-Ho. The M1981 would not be as troubled by these rivers and could operate alongside amphibious armored personnel carriers such as the 323 to provide them with additional firepower that is a lot easier to move around wet areas than heavier vehicles.
The M1981 has also, quite recently, been shown in amphibious landing exercises, in which the vehicles featured a foldable plate (known as a trim vane) used to break waves, which is not typically seen during parades. The role of landing vehicle is another one which can reasonably be expected of a light amphibious tank, the M1981 playing, in general, a role similar to the PT-76 in the Red Army or the Type 63 amphibious tank in the People’s Liberation Army.
Upgrades and modifications
Ever since it was first seen in 1985, the M1981 has become a fairly common vehicle in North Korean parades. This allows observers to see several upgrades and modifications which have been applied to the North Korean vehicle since the 1980s.
A first upgrade was conducted at an unknown time, but likely in the 1990s or even perhaps late 1980s, seeing as the majority of photos of M1981s we know of, including a number of black-and-white or poor quality photos, show them with elements that were added with this unknown upgrade. This upgrade includes a large infrared projector placed on the right of the main gun and is linked to it by braces for elevation. New lights are also found on the hull, two to three, depending on the vehicle, on the right side of the main front plate, and, not always mounted, an additional one on the smaller front-left side plate. These lights are of various configurations. In some parades, for example, the M1981 appears to feature two infrared lights along with a regular one.
In a 2015 parade, the M1981 appeared with several new upgrades, in addition to the ones seen in 2010. The vehicles were given six smoke grenade launchers, three on each side of the turret, as well a new secondary weapon: a 9K38 Igla man-portable anti-aircraft missile, likely a model of North Korean manufacture. As with the Malyutka back in 1985, whether or not this weapon is truly intended to be deployed with the M1981 remains to be seen. If so, it would grant the vehicle some self-defense capacities against helicopters and low-flying aircraft. With a crewman likely having to operate the weapon from the vehicle’s exterior, its practicality is quite dubious. This practice is very common in North Korean parades though, with all kinds of military vehicles – from the most modern models of the Chonma-ho tanks, as well as the new Songun-Ho, all the way to lightly armored self-propelled artillery pieces – all having been shown with Iglas.
The production numbers of the M1981 – as with any military vehicle from North Korea – are impossible to know in detail, due to the highly secretive nature of the country.
It should be noted that the M1981 appears to, in any case, have continued being regularly used and even developed upon long after its introduction in the early 1980s. Indeed, as late as 2009, a new vehicle based on its hull, the M2009 “Chunma-D” armored personnel carrier, was observed. This would tend to indicate that the vehicle was still in production (though it has also been theorized the Chunma-D may have begun production as a way to repurpose the M1981 production lines after production of the type was ended), as new variants using its hull were being introduced. Therefore, it is quite likely an important number of M1981 Shin’heungs are still present in the Korean People’s Army. An estimate of 500 vehicles in service is often brought up but is pretty much unverifiable.
The M1981 likely played a key role in the development of North Korea’s arms industry. It is by no means the first armored vehicle produced in North Korea, with the 323 and most likely T-54 and T-55, and perhaps even the earliest models of the Chonma preceding it. However, unlike all of those vehicles, the M1981 is not merely an exact copy or slightly modified version of the original model. Though it very obviously takes some inspiration from other vehicles of the era, most notably the 323 and PT-76, but also perhaps the T-54 and Type 63, it is not a mere variant of any of those, and massively differs from any of them individually. As such, the M1981 could be argued to be North Korea’s first truly indigenous armored vehicle, setting a major precedent for a North Korean military industry. The industry would only grow in the following decades, developing, notably, updates of the Chonma-Ho, which, from a mere lightened copy of the T-62, would be vastly upgraded, eventually evolving into the current Songun-Ho. This later tank, while still in the vague filiation of the T-62, has little that remains from the Soviet 1960s main battle tank.
Conclusion – A small, obsolete light tank for the world, a massive step forward for North Korea
The M1981 Shin’heung is, by today’s standards and even to an extent in the 1980s, an obsolete vehicle. The capacities of its main gun, as well as its fire controls, are certainly obsolete against any kind of modern competition – China, which operated light tanks with similar armament in the form of the Type 62 and Type 63, has long updated them with 105 mm main guns and more up-to-date fire control systems, and has now introduced more modern vehicles which have replaced the first and are on their way to replacing the second. For North Korea though, no replacement appears to exist for the M1981, with even the October 2020 parade not featuring any. The vehicle has received some upgrades in the last few years, but they are vastly insufficient, and while it may very well still be in production, the Shin’heung is long past its prime.
Nonetheless, the vehicles likely played a major role in North Korea’s industrial history, allowing the country to switch from a mere license/local producer of Chinese or Soviet equipment, as several of the Eastern Bloc countries were, to a country which develops, at least to an extent, its own vehicles. This development turned out to be crucial for the country known as the “Hermit Kingdom”: the collapse of the Eastern Bloc left North Korea isolated, with only some moderate links remaining to Russia, and military links seemingly restricted to mostly China, Syria, and Iran. Its ability to develop its own vehicles has likely been crucial in allowing the Korean People’s Army to field vehicles more advanced than mere T-62 copies. However, even the most modern North Korean tanks, such as the Songun-Ho or the new tank revealed in 2020, would not compare favorably at all to modern South Korean tanks such as the K2, K1A2 or K1A1.
M1981 Shin’heung specifications (estimations)
7.60×2.10×2.80 m (estimations)
Total Weight, Battle Ready
Unknown (Perhaps a 320 hp 8-cylinders air-cooled diesel engine or a 6-cylinders water-cooled 240 hp diesel engine)
Maximum speed (road)
Maximum speed (water)
3 (driver, commander, gunner), 4 sometimes claimed
85 mm derived from Type 62-85CT
Coaxial 7.62 mm machine-gun
Either 1 Malyutka ATGM, 1 Igla MANPAD, or perhaps 1 KPV 14.5 mm machine-gun (whether any of those would actually be used in operations is unknown)
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