Birth and evolution of the ‘Great Leader’
After 1910, the Korean peninsula was occupied by the troops of the Japanese Empire, which administered it using an iron fist, subjugating the civilian population.
This caused a feeling of hatred towards the conquerors that soon turned into an armed struggle, with dozens of militias called “Righteous Armies”. These fought the Japanese oppressors with blunderbusses, sticks, and bladed weapons.
In this climate of hatred, the family of Kim Hyŏng-jik (1894-1926) became famous for acts of activism against the Japanese. In 1912, jik had a son by Kang Pan-sok (1892-1932), Kim Il-sung, who grew up in a revolutionary climate. In 1920, Kim Hyŏng-jik’s family had to flee to Manchuria in China in order to avoid arrest by the Japanese police.
Kim Il-sung became famous for being a dangerous communist in China, being arrested for subversive activities in 1926 (when he was only 14 years old) and again in 1929. In 1931, he joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and later, in 1935-36, became the Political Commissar of the 3rd Detachment of the 2nd Division of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army.
He quickly rose through the ranks of the militia to become one of the most famous officers in the region. In 1940, after a series of defeats suffered by the Anti-Japanese Army, he and his men were forced to flee to the Soviet Union. There, Stalin had created training centers for Chinese and Korean Communist fighters. Assigned to the center of Vyatskoye in 1942, he was assigned to the Red Army as a Major in command of a unit of Korean Communists, many of whom would become prominent political or military figures of the DPRK in the following decades.
The birth of the two Koreas
Three months after the end of the war in the European theater, the Soviet Union declared war on the Japanese Empire on 8th August 1945. They successfully crossed the border with the Korean peninsula on August 15 and liberated Pyongyang on 24th August. They settled approximately in the middle of the peninsula.
After reaching an agreement with Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, two US Generals, Stalin ordered the Red Army to stand along the 38th parallel, which was designated as the separation point between the two soon-to-be superpowers in the region. There, they waited for the US troops that arrived three weeks later.
In the Moscow Conference of December 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union decided to administer Korea together and then demobilize their forces after 5 years. This effectively created the Soviet-backed communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea, and the US-backed Republic of Korea (ROK) or South Korea (though this state would not come into existence until 15th August 1948).
This solution was not much appreciated by the Korean population and, in order to avoid riots or anti-Soviet revolutions, Stalin ordered the commander of the Red Army in Korea to appoint a Korean leader as head of the Communist Korean government.
Kim Il-sung was chosen because, in his years of militancy, he had become known by many Chinese and Soviet generals and officers who had appreciated his leadership skills. He arrived by ship in Wonsan, in North Korea, on September 19, 1945. In the beginning, he had problems because of his long time away from Korea. He had attended a Chinese school until the age of 14 and, after 26 years of exile, he spoke better Chinese and Russian than Korean.
Regardless, in December 1945, he became the communist leader of the part of Korea under Soviet influence.
In February 1946, Kim Il-sung introduced a major series of reforms. More than half of the arable land that remained unused after the Japanese landowners fled was distributed to peasant families. 8-hour work shifts were standardized, all heavy industry was nationalized, and health care became free and available to all citizens.
A detail that is often forgotten is the fact that both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea, at the time of their foundation (and still today), consider themselves de jure administrator of the entire Korean Peninsula, even if, de facto, they control only one part.
Chinese Civil War
After the defeat of the Japanese in August 1945, the Chinese Civil War between Chinese Nationalist and Chinese Communist restarted and the Communist Government of Korea sent military equipment, estimated at 2,000 wagon trains of equipment and ammunition (mostly Japanese equipment abandoned after surrender), and between 50,000 and 70,000 volunteers that fought alongside the Chinese Communist Army, the Chinese People’s Army.
North Korea also provided a safe refuge where Communist Chinese soldiers could create training camps with the help of the Soviets and warehouses to keep equipment safe.
At the end of the Chinese Civil War, the Chinese Communists won in December 1949. The People’s Republic of China repatriated the veteran Korean volunteers, letting them keep their weapons and promising to Kim Il-sung to support the DPRK in the event of war with the Republic of Korea.
Birth of the Korean People’s Army
On 9th September 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was officially proclaimed. But the Korean People’s Army Ground Forces (KPAGF) was founded a year earlier, in August 1947, composed of former Korean volunteers of the Red Army and of the Anti-Japanese Chinese Army, or militias who fought the Japanese in the Korean peninsula during the occupation.
Thanks to the advisors and the considerable military aid from the Soviets, Kim built a large army, well versed in infiltration tactics and guerrilla warfare.
The Korean People’s Army (KPA) was officially founded on February 8, 1948, and also composed of Korean People’s Army Naval Force (KPANF) and Korean People’s Army Air and Anti-Air Force (KPAAF).
From the late 1940s to June 1950, the Soviet Union supplied Kim’s Korea with several thousand tanks, including a batch of about 170 SU-76M self-propelled guns, an unknown number of T-34-76s and 258 T-34-85s. Not only that, in addition to the tracked vehicles, the KPAGF also received several hundred BA-64 Light Armored Scout Cars and various artillery pieces: 45 mm M1937, 57 mm ZIS-2, 76 mm ZIS-3 anti-tank guns, and different models of howitzers as well as rifles and machine guns produced in huge quantities for the Second World War.
The first KPA tankers were trained both in China, on captured US and Japanese tanks and on a few T-34s, and in Korea. The Red Army created a center for the training of officers and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) in 1945.
In 1948, before supplies of Soviet vehicles arrived, the Soviets formed the 15th Tank Training Regiment under the command of Tu Lying Su, a former Korean Red Army Lieutenant and 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 was staffed by a squad of about 30 tank officers, veteran Soviet volunteers. Of these, most did not speak Korean and needed to be constantly followed by interpreters, of which there were not many.
All of the recruits had previously served in the anti-Japanese militia, while the officers and non-commissioned officers had served in the Red Army during the Second World War or the People’s Liberation Army.
In May 1949, the regiment was reorganized and the cadets were all promoted to officers and NCOs of the newly formed 105th Armored Brigade.
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 best trained and equipped Armored Division of the KPA.
The brigade consisted of five regiments. The 107th, 109th, and 203rd Tank Regiments were equipped with 40 T-34-85s each, although the ranks were only completed in October 1949. The 206th Motorized Infantry Regiment was equipped with Soviet-made trucks and, finally, the 308th Armored Battalion had 16 SU-76M self-propelled assault guns. This amounted to a total of 120 medium tanks, 16 self-propelled vehicles, an unknown number of trucks, and about 6,000 soldiers.
The training unit was renamed the 208th Tank Training Regiment and Colonel Kim Choi Won, a veteran of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, was put in charge.
Border Skirmishes and Southern Communist rebellions
In 1949, several border skirmishes broke out between the KPAGF and the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA). Continuous clashes took place, such as the armed occupation of some villages north or south of the border, which led to thousands of deaths on both sides.
In the south, the situation was anything but quiet, as several communist revolts broke out against the American-backed government between 1948 and 1949. On Jeju Island and in the Yeosu-Suncheon region in the south of the Korean peninsula, two different rebellions broke out that cost the lives of 35-40,000 people including soldiers, communist guerrillas, and innocent civilians.
It should be noted that these two rebellions broke out not because of North Korean infiltration, but because of the malaise of the population and were mostly organized by the South Korean Labor Party (SKLP). These were armed mainly with weapons of Japanese production abandoned before the Japanese retreat.
In the spring of 1949, in the mountainous regions of Gyeongsang Gangwon, along the eastern border of South Korea, other rebel groups began to rise, this time supported by about 2,400 commandos sent by the KPAGF. These rebels had the task of sabotaging the ROKA in preparation for the imminent KPA attack.
The operation was a failure because the ROKA managed to foil many actions of the guerrillas, but could not defeat them completely. When the war began, they provided aid to the KPAGF.
1950-1953, the Fatherland Liberation War
In March 1949, Kim Il-sung had gone to Moscow to ask permission from Stalin to attack the South. However, the Chinese Civil War was still ongoing and there were still US troops in the South.
In 1950, however, the Chinese Civil War was over, the US had withdrawn from South Korea and, in addition, five months after Kim’s request, Stalin had successfully tested the first Soviet atomic bomb, putting the USSR on par with the US.
There were no more obstacles and the Soviet Union allowed Kim to invade, promising military aid on the condition that Mao’s Chinese People’s Republic would also participate by sending military aid to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
After receiving the confirmation, the invasion plans were prepared and they were changed several times by Kim Il-sung himself. On the morning of June 25th, 1950, the KPA forces finally received the order to attack.
The KPA was divided into two armies, the first equipped with the 120 T-34-85s of the 105th Armor Brigade and the second with only 30 T-34s of the 208th Tank Training Regiment.
The first few weeks were a North Korean success, as the ROKA had no tanks and few 57 mm anti-tank guns. In just 5 days, the North Koreans had captured Seoul and destroyed nearly 70% of the South Korean Army.
The first US troops to arrive in Korea as part of the United Nations (UN) intervention engaged the North Koreans on 5th July 1950 in Osan, south of Seoul. Without tanks and with very few anti-tank weapons which were found to be ineffective against Korean T-34s, from 5th July until early August, they too suffered heavy losses and were forced to retreat along with the ROKA.
In August, US, UN, and South Korean forces were entrenched along the Pusan Perimeter, the last unoccupied part of the Korean peninsula, with a perimeter of only 230 km.
The USAF (United States Air Force) began an intense series of raids aimed at hitting sensitive structures under the command of the KPA, making supply operations to the front line practically impossible during daylight and drastically weakening the North Korean troops at the front.
During the Battle of Pusan Perimeter from 4th August to 18th September 1950, the North Koreans lost 63,000 men (including dead, wounded, missing, and prisoners), 239 T-34s, and 74 SU-76Ms. For their part, the UN troops stuck in the Pusan pocket were reinforced by about 180,000 soldiers and about 500 tanks, losing during the defense 60,000 soldiers (40,000 of the ROKA) and only 60 M24 Chaffee, M4A3 Sherman, and M26 Pershing tanks.
After this, the KPA forces suffered a period of continuous defeats. UN troops then landed behind North Korean lines in Incheon, forcing the North Koreans into a disorganized retreat and the loss of many soldiers.
On 25th September 1950, Seoul was reconquered and the South government was restored, but it was not enough. On 30th September, General McArthur, in command of US and UN troops in Korea, received a dispatch from the White House stating that he could invade North Korea beyond the 38th parallel.
On 1st October, US troops opened a passage and penetrated into North Korea, followed by ROKA and UN troops.
The unstoppable UN troops conquered Pyongyang, capital of the DPRK, on 19th October and pushed further north towards the border with China.
During the fighting, about 200,000 PKA soldiers were wounded or killed and another 135,000 taken prisoner, in addition to losing another 313 tanks (almost all T-34-85s).
In the early days of October, Kim Il-sung implored China and the Soviet Union to intervene. Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese People’s Republic, realized that, if the United Nations conquered the DPRK, he would have the United States in contact with the southern border of China. In order to prevent this from happening on 19th October 1950, the troops of the Chinese People’s Volunteers Army (PVA) crossed the border between China and Korea, while the Soviet Union would limit itself to providing equipment to both the KPA and the PVA.
25th October 1950 was the day when Chinese troops fought for the first time in the Korean War, in the Battle of Onjong against the ROKA. This lasted until the 29th, with a great victory for the Chinese. On 1st November, the Chinese encountered US troops at Unsan, defeating them and bringing the UN advance to a standstill.
These victories brought to Stalin a breath of positivity, convincing him that the UN troops could still be defeated, so he allowed the Soviet Air Force to participate secretly in the war and sent more equipment to the PVA and the KPA.
In November, the UN troops attempted another attack, but the Chinese and Korean troops repulsed it. They then forced the UN troops to begin a retreat beyond the 38th parallel at the end of December.
The operations resumed in January, with the North Korean and Chinese troops reconquering Seoul on 4th January 1951. However, because of the scarce supplies of ammunition, food, and fuel, they could not advance much further, conquering the city of Wonju and pushing not much further south.
On 25th January, the Americans launched Operation Thunderbolt which lasted until 11th February 1951. This led to the recapture of Wonju and the establishment of UN forces on the Han River.
After Operation Thunderbolt, there were Operations Killer (11th February-6th March 1951), which led to the crossing of the Han River, and Operation Ripper (7th March-6th April), which led to the reoccupation of the city of Seoul, the fourth and last occupation in less than a year.
In these battles, the PVA alone lost 53,000 men. In the period between April and May 1951, the PVA and the KPA launched another offensive that cost China 102,000 men (including wounded, dead, and captured) out of 700,000. Another 78,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured in the UN counter-offensive that brought the front line to just north of the 38th parallel from July 1951 to July 1953.
From this point, there were no more major battles, but simple border skirmishes, as had taken place before the war, with almost continuous exchange of artillery fire. The few battles that were fought were the Battle of Punchbowl, fought between August and September 1951, the Battle of Hill 266 between June 1952 and March 1953, and the last Chinese offensive launched in June and July 1953. At first, this led to a minimal advance which was quickly blocked and driven back by the UN. The attack cost China the lives of 25,000 soldiers in addition to 40,000 wounded, while the UN troops suffered 14,000 casualties.
The armistice was signed on 27th July 1953, and both the DPRK and the Republic of Korea claimed, and still claim, to have won the war. With the armistice of 1954 came the exchange of prisoners of war, the corpses of the dead soldiers, and the creation of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the former Korean border, the 38th parallel.
Since the Korean War, there have been dozens of incidents involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea. At a rate of about two per year in the nearly four decades from the end of the Korean War to the end of the Cold War they have caused thousands of deaths of Americans, South Koreans, and North Koreans.
Most of these incidents, involving small units consisting of a few soldiers, often do not even get mentioned on the international news. Some of them have been significant and have not only created tension between the United States, the Republic of Korea, and the DPRK but have also risked triggering a second war.
The most important incidents involved the Blue House Raid on 21st January 1968, when a commando of 31 KPA soldiers who had infiltrated South Korea a few days earlier attacked the residence of South Korean President Park Chung-hee.
The attack failed and, of the 31 commandos, only one managed to cross the demilitarized border and another was captured. This action did not receive great media importance in the world because it coincided with the beginning of the Têt Offensive in Vietnam, which started with a similar attack on the Palace of Independence in Saigon.
The world’s attention was dampened again 2 days later, when naval units of the Korean People’s Army Naval Force (KPANF) captured the USS Pueblo, with 82 US sailors on board.
The possession of the hostages and the beginning of the offensive in Vietnam put the Koreans in an advantageous position. The US denied the ROKA permission to retaliate and, almost a year later, in December 1968, the US hostages were returned.
In 1968 there was another attempted infiltration by Unit 124 in the south. Between 120 and 130 KPA commandos landed in eight different locations on the east coast of South Korea to try to create training camps to train an armed guerrilla against the ROKA.
The plan was to indoctrinate villagers along the east coast of South Korea with the Chuch’e ideology.
Obviously, the authorities were warned almost immediately and a major offensive was launched to capture the KPA commandos. In two weeks, 70,000 US and ROKA soldiers annihilated Unit 124, with 110 commandos killed, 7 captured, and a number between 3 and 13 missing in action or escaped back to the DPRK.
In 1969, there was another attack by the DPRK. Two North Korean MIG-21 jets were sent to intercept a US Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) Lockheed EC-121M ‘Warning Star’ which was shot down 90 km from the Korean border, causing the death of 31 crew members. This incident caused the most US casualties in Korea after the war. The US did not respond to the attack but began to provide fighter escorts to the AWE&Cs.
1960s and 1970s: The KPA’s transformation into a massive military force
Through the 1950s and most of the 1960s, North Korea had moderate spending in its military expenses. In the same era, North Korea continued to assert its independence – a much-needed effort after the country had vastly depended on China and the Soviet Union during the war. In 1956, during a meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, two factions made themselves heard, known as the Soviet Koreans (mostly consisting of communist Koreans who had been raised in exile in the Soviet Union) and the Yan’an faction (which were fairly similar to the Soviet Koreans, but aligned with China). These factions criticized the authoritarian nature of Kim-Il Sung’s regime and the amount of personal power he was trying to concentrate on himself. Their attempts to depose him failed and led to the factions being purged. With Kim-Il Sung re-asserted in his control of North Korea, one may find the origin of the “Kim Dynasty”s’ control of the country there.
The very large-scale destruction caused by the Korean War required considerable resources to attempt to repair and compensate for. The military was fairly well-equipped but remained at a fairly moderate size. By the end of the 1950s, only 350,000 servicemen made up the KPA, making them quite numerically outnumbered by the 650,000 strong ROKA. In terms of armor, while North Korea had received small quantities of T-54-2s and T-54-3s in the 1950s, the bulk of its forces still operated the T-34-85, of which there were about 1,000.
Like all nations in the 1960s, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea also had an economic boom, even if limited to a part of the economy, more precisely to the heavy industry.
It went from assembling Soviet-made vehicles to producing the first licensed copies of PT-76Bs in 1967 and T-55s in 1968.
The city where the industry developed was Kusŏng, north of Pyongyang, where a large part of the military industry of the DPRK is concentrated with launching sites for intercontinental missiles, uranium mines, and the Kusŏng Machinery Factory, where almost all the Korean tanks and tracked armored vehicles are produced to this day.
The driving factor behind the metamorphosis of the KPA from an army of moderate size to the oversized behemoth it is now was the growth of the Chuch’e (also translated as Juche) ideology in the 1960s. Developed by Kim Il-sung, this branch of Marxism-Leninism heavily emphasized the need for North Korea to assert its independence and be able to be self-sufficient. This was in no small part motivated by the Sino-Soviet Split in progress at the same time, with North Korea wanting to avoid being forced to fully align itself with one of its two larger communist neighbors. This resulted in neither of them being truly willing to sell North Korea their most advanced technology. As a result, the need for North Korea to be able to produce its own armored vehicles, as well as massively expand its military to be able to defend itself or even attack South Korea on its own, was now apparent.
On the armor side, this translated into North Korea starting to acquire large quantities of armored vehicles from China and the Soviet Union again in the late 1960s and particularly the 1970s. Though this may seem paradoxical, seeing as North Korea wanted to assert its independence, some of those armament deals included a large involvement of North Korea’s military industry, a crucial step in developing this domain, which would be crucial to assert the DPRK’s military independence.
From China, North Korea received a number of Type 62 and 63 light tanks, and, most significantly, larger quantities of Type 59s (likely over a thousand). Deliveries of Type 59s would continue even after North Korea stopped imports of vehicles from the Soviet Union, attesting better relations between the two East Asian countries than between the Soviet Union and North Korea. Though North Korea would negotiate with both countries after the Sino-Soviet Split, it appears to have remained generally closer to China. Kim-Il Sung was much closer to Mao’s very authoritarian view of Marxism-Leninism rather than Khrushchev’s regime, marked by Destalinization. China also delivered a quantity (sometimes 160 to 180 are mentioned, sometimes 500) of YW531A/Type 63A armored personnel carriers in 1967.
From the Soviet Union, North Korea took massive orders of a variety of armored vehicles. Many of those orders did include some form of assembly or production in North Korea. This was very much instrumental in setting up facilities to manufacture armored vehicles. According to North Korean sources, the first T-55 assembled in North Korea left its factory in 1968. Other sources, such as the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, report a first order for 1,000 T-54s in 1966, and assembly or production in North Korea took place from 1967 to 1974. Another order for 1,000 T-55s would follow in 1970, with the vehicles leaving North Korean factories from 1972 to 1982. These vehicles already incorporated some minor modifications. Among these, they did not use a pintle-mounted 12.7 mm machine gun, but instead, a 14.5 mm KPV mounted at the back of the turret, demonstrating North Korea’s high appreciation of the higher-caliber machine gun.
A likely far lower, but unknown number of PT-76s was also assembled in North Korea during the same period, with the first leaving their factory in 1967. How deep the North Korean involvement in the manufacturing of the vehicles is unknown. The vehicles may just have been assembled from parts delivered by the Soviet Union or may have involved a vast number of North Korean-produced parts, with the Soviets perhaps only providing critical elements as well as the plans. Alternatively, it may also very well have evolved during the course of the production run, incorporating the two methods. In any case, two major results came out of those North Korean production runs: North Korea now had facilities able to produce armored vehicles (notably the Kusong tank plant for MBTs and the Sinhung plant for lighter, amphibious vehicles); as well as a very large stock of Soviet and Chinese MBTs which massively enlarged the KPA’s armored force, dwarfing South Korea’s at this point. This large mass of T-54, T-55, and Type 59s are still in service to this day, though often overlooked due to the presence of much more modern and peculiar indigenous vehicles in North Korea’s Army.
The DPRK took a big step forward in 1976 when it joined the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a group of nations that were not aligned with either of the two blocks of the Cold War, the communist and NATO. With the Sino-Soviet Split, joining the NAM was an attempt to outgrow the dependence on the two communist superpowers, but also proof of not taking sides.
In 1975, Kim Il-sung asked the People’s Republic of China for military support for a hypothetical Second Fatherland Liberation War, 25 years after the first, but due to Mao Zedong‘s feeble health at the time and the Sino-Vietnamese Crisis that erupted following the Communist victory in the Vietnam War (Kim Il-sung and Hồ Chí Minh were close friends), China refused to provide any support.
Kim’s plan to attempt a second reunification of the two Koreas was therefore canceled, even if a series of underground tunnels were completed that crossed across the Demilitarized Zone. These allowed, in case of war, for small units of KPAGF commandos to cross the DMZ avoiding the minefields and sabotage the South Korean rear lines before the first wave of regular KPA troops attacked.
Four of these tunnels were found by ROKA and the US Army. The first was found in 1974, the second in 1975, while the last two were discovered in 1978 and 1990.
In the 1970s, only one major incident occurred between ROKA and US troops and KPA. In August 1976, during the pruning of a tree by a unit composed of South Korean and US troops, observed at a short distance by a unit of the KPA, a brawl started that ended with the beating to death of an American soldier and another being killed with an axe.
After the killing of South Korean President Park Chung-hee by the commander of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency Kim Jae-gyu, there were border skirmishes that did not lead to victims on either side, even if the tension on the South Korean side was high. It first, it was thought that the DPRK was behind the death of the president.
At the same time, while the 1960s were marked by relative North Korean prosperity, after a period of economic growth, the North Korean economy stagnated, struggling to develop its industrial apparatus further.
The birth of North Korea’s own armored fighting vehicles
This massively enlarged KPA was now a decisively offensive army, that, at the time, had a large numerical advantage over the South. While not particularly being at a technological disadvantage, the South Koreans had no vehicles more advanced than M48 Patton, and still used a large number of inferior M47s, M4 Shermans or M24 Chaffees.
To further reinforce this now very large KPA tank force, as well as ensure the independence of its armored vehicles procurement, North Korea started to produce its own armored vehicles. The first of those is arguably the 323 armored personnel carrier, often known as the VTT-323 in the west. Based on the Chinese Type 63, it features an additional roadwheel, and a rear-mounted turret featuring a fairly respectable armament of two 14.5 mm KPV machine guns. The lengthening of its hull apparently allows it to maintain the 10 passengers capacity of the Type 63. The vehicle began production at the Sinhung plant in 1973. At the time, it was actually a fairly potent APC. In comparison to American and South Korea’s M113, the 323 offered vastly superior firepower, with two turret-mounted 14.5 mm machine guns in comparison to a single 12.7 mm machine gun in a pintle mount. Amphibious capabilities were superior, with about 10 km/h speed in water compared to the M113’s 6 km/h, and, although the M113 could carry an additional passenger in comparison to the 323, it was much less capable of supporting its dismounts in combat.
This 323 armored personnel carrier would prove a mainstay of North Korea’s mechanized troops, becoming the standard North Korean APC. Its hull was used for a very wide variety of uses, from the mere addition of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) to its turret, to quite peculiar vehicles that removed the turret to replace them with Multiple Rocket Launch Systems (MRLS) while keeping infantry-carrying capacity. Additionally, it also provided the basis for command variants, anti-tank vehicles and anti-ship missile carriers, etcetera. An amphibious tank was even designed using the chassis of the 323, the M1981 Shin’eung. Another phenomenon that started in the 1970s was North Korea designing self-propelled artillery pieces that combined a number of chassis (Soviet ATS-59 tractors, 323s, and even Type 59s) to produce a variety of artillery pieces, such as the Tokchons, ATS-59 based vehicles mounting a plethora of guns typically from 122 to 152 mm in caliber, and the very peculiar Koksan, based on the Type 59 and mounting a very long-range indigenous 170 mm artillery piece, one of the longest-ranged self-propelled artillery pieces of the era. The quantity of vehicles produced is hard to estimate, but exercises have shown wide numbers of Koksans and particularly Tokchons, it is likely at least several hundreds were built.
Another massive development initiated in the 1970s was the birth of the Chonma-Ho. This was a North Korean version of the Soviet Union’s T-62 main battle tank. Although it is often theorized that North Korea received a large quantity of T-62s from the Soviet Union, this is by no means confirmed and appears unlikely. Instead, the Soviet Union perhaps may have directly delivered machinery to set up a T-62 production line in North Korea, or just passed on the plans. In any case, the production of the Chonma began in 1978. The tank actually combined the turret of the T-62 obr 1972 and the hull of the T-62 obr 1962. This turret was modified to mount a 14.5 mm machine gun as well as handrails that could fit 14.5 mm ammunition spares. The vehicle is often said to have had lightened armor, but there is no definitive proof of this. While the T-62 may not seem like the most modern tank by 1978, it was a considerable step above the best tanks of the ROKA, which were M48A3 and M48A5. Only in 1988 would a tank surpassing the Chonma enter service in the ROKA, though this vehicle, the K1, would outclass the North Korean vehicle very significantly.
1980s and early 1990s: A blooming tank industry
The 1980s and early 1990s were marked by North Korea’s military industry beginning production of a large variety of new armored vehicles to fulfill a large variety of roles. Those vehicles increasingly differed from Soviet and Chinese models. Some examples include the M1989, a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun developed in the 1980s (the M1989 designation being given by the US Department of Defence (DoD) when the vehicle was first observed), which, while based on the Shilka, had a dual 30 mm armament based on Soviet CIWIS, allowing for further range than the Shilka’s quad 23 mm guns. In 1989, a newer, more advanced version of the Koksan was also observed by external viewers. By 1992, new self-propelled artillery pieces were first observed by an international audience, mounting a 122 mm and either a 130 or 152 mm gun in a fully rotatable turret. These were designated M1991 and M1992. Other vehicles observed around this era included 323-based mortar carriers that had their armament in a fully rotatable turret, likely inspired by the 2S9 Nona and a reconnaissance armored car/light armored personnel carrier designated as the M1992.
In the 1980s, the Chonma series started to undergo a series of upgrades. In the west, the Chonma series are often divided as Chonma I/II/III/IV/V/VI, but this is an oversimplified system of classification, with much more variants of the Chonma existing. At the same time, the existence of a vehicle that matches the description of the Chonma III is straight-up uncertain. In the 1980s, Chonmas received laser rangefinders, the first being spotted in a 1985 parade. North Korea also seemingly managed to acquire a single T-72 during the 1980s. This was an “Ural”, which had likely been captured from Iraq by Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and then acquired by North Korea. This vehicle would be heavily studied in order to use some of its technologies in North Korea’s own Main Battle Tanks. In 1992, a new version of the Chonma was first observed by international viewers, this time featuring some major modifications. The vehicle had a much more angular turret, with North Korean tank design having abandoned casting and now using welded turrets. The vehicle notably featured smoke launchers and Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA). It was designated M1992 by the US DoD. A very similar vehicle, with only slight modifications in smoke launchers and ERA, is designated as the Chonma-92 by North Korean sources. Those newer models of the Chomna mark some considerable advancements in North Korean tank development, bringing some major advancements to the original Chonma/T-62.
North Korea: Open to export… and closed to journalists
Although the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (often referred to as the ‘Hermit Kingdom’) was and still is a country isolated from the rest of the world, the DPRK also had trade with several nations of the Communist Bloc until 1989-1991 (as of 2021 there are more than 160 nations that have diplomatic relations with the DPRK) and still has a flourishing military trade in relation to the development of the nation.
In many of the conflicts fought in recent decades, Korea has provided armament, funding, or observers to some nations, often transgressing embargoes and ignoring the calls of the international community.
During the Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1979), the DPRK trained pro-socialist militias who wanted to overthrow the white government of the newly formed Republic of Rhodesia in a camp near Pyongyang in the use of explosives and mines.
During the Iran-Iraq War (1989-1988), the DPRK supplied guns, artillery, ammunition, tanks and self-propelled guns produced domestically and acted as intermediary to supply Iran with armaments of Soviet and Chinese origin and still trades with the Islamic Republic of Iran to this day. It supplied various types of equipment to Chad during the Chadian-Libyan Conflict (1978-1987), supplied armaments, tanks and self-propelled guns to Ethiopia during the Eritrean War of Independence (1961-1991) and for decades has supplied guns, ammunition and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) to Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in South Lebanon against the state of Israel.
The DPRK has provided military equipment or supported dozens of other wars or insurgencies such as the Vietnam War, Congo Civil War, Angola War, Ugandan Bush War, Sri Lanka CIvil War and Coup, and more recently in the Yemen Civil War.
This openness of North Korea towards export sales and friendly regimes is heavily contrasted by its isolation from the rest of the world in terms of information. North Korea is indeed very much closer to western journalists and analysts and has always maintained a lot of secrecy around its armored vehicle development. This means that, in practice, the main source of information on a vast quantity of North Korean armored vehicles tends to be the mere observation of whatever footage is made available of them, more often than not, through parade footage, though, occasionally, some exercise footage can be shown as well. The US Department of Defence also has to rely heavily on this footage to get some of its information – and this can be identified as the reason why so many North Korean vehicles are designated by the same year, with the M1992 designation for example applying to an armored personnel carrier, an ATGM carrier, a model of the Chonma-Ho and a self-propelled artillery piece: all were first observed in the same 1992 parade.
THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun, Stijn Mitzer, Joost Oliemans
Oryx Blog – North Korean Vehicles: https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2014/01/the-oryx-handbook-of-north-korean.html
SIPRI Arms Transfers Database
T-34-85 vs M26 Pershing Korea, 1950 – Steven Zaloga
The Korean War 1950–53 – Nigel Thomas and Peter Abbott
Inch’on 1950 The last great amphibious assault – Gordon Rottman
Engineering analysis of the Russian T-34 85 – CIA
First model of the Chonma-Ho (nicknamed “Chonma-Ho I” in Western circles)
An early Chonma-Ho fitted with a turret bustle, likely stowage
Early Chonma-Ho with laser rangefinder (nicknamed “Chonma-Ho II” in Western circles)
Illustration depicting what appears to be a cast-turret Chonma-Ho with ERA, smoke grenades and a variety of other upgrades; the existance of those on cast turret Chonma is uncertain, but is confirmed on welded-turret Chonma-Ho (M1992 & Ch
Koksan M1978 170 mm (off scale)
Koksan M1989 170 mm (off scale)
Camouflaged Koksan M1989 170 mm, maximal elevation (off scale)
Possible rendition of the Songun-H as of 2010 in olive green as shown in parade.
Camouflaged Chonma-216 of the Ry-Kyong-Su Guards augmented with ATGMs and MANPADS
Cold War Tanks