Key Point: Kim has lots of tanks--but they might just be too old to fight.
While the T-34/85 medium tank might be have been instrumental in the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht in World War Two, the vintage war machine is probably still in service in North Korea.
The Soviet Union delivered some 250 T-34/85s to the nascent Democratic People’s Republic of Korea before March 1950. The Soviets delivered more of the tanks later over the course of the Korean War. The North Koreans lost many T-34/85s during the war as it became very apparently that the American M26 Pershing, M46 Patton and the British Centurion grossly outclassed the long-serving Soviet-built tank.
It not clear how many of the antiquated T-34/85 tanks are still in service with the Korean People’s Army, but some of the machines were spotted in North Korean propaganda videos as late as 2012. There were some 250 of the vintage T-34/85 tanks in the North Korean inventory as of 1996 according to some sources, but it is not clear how many of those machines are still in service. North Korea has been isolated for much of the preceding 25-years under various sanctions and embargos, so it is possible a significant portion of those tanks are still in the KPA inventory. Forces such as the KPA rarely throw away hardware no matter how obsolete.
But how would the T-34/85 fare on the modern battlefield?
If the KPA were to use the T-34/84 as part of mechanized formation conducting actual maneuver warfare, it would probably not end well for those crews. The North Koreans are more likely to use the T-34/85 for their reserve units and would probably use the machines for infantry support or in a defensive role from dug in positions. Otherwise, out in the open against either U.S. or South Korean forces, the T-34/85 would be basically useless.
However, if the North Koreans—who have had more than 50 years to prepare for a renewed war on the Korean peninsula—use clever tactics to ambush allied forces in the event a full-scale conflict breaks out again, the T-34/85 might still be of some use. The KPA would likely have to use camouflage and North Korea’s rugged terrain to their advantage to ambush U.S. and allied forces under conditions that are favorable to them.
Essentially, the KPA would have to use asymmetric tactics more similar to an insurgency—perhaps not unlike the Taliban or the Islamic State—to make life as difficult for allied forces as possible. Even then, the KPA would likely suffer grievous losses and would inevitably lose ultimately, but they could make allied forces pay for every millimeter of ground in blood in a fanatical defense of their homeland.
Fanatical defense of the homeland—even under the rule of a totalitarian state—is not unheard of, the German Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS would often put up a ferocious—often suicidal—fight even when there was no hope of winning toward the end of the Nazi regime. Similarly, Imperial Japanese forces would often fight to the last man rather than surrender—often out of devotion to their emperor. And while North Korea is a nominally Communist dictatorship, its leadership more resembles a Confucian monarchy in many ways. It’s not out of the realm of the possible that North Korean forces would put up a fanatical defense of their regime and fight to the bitter end with whatever means they have left to them.
This first appeared in 2017. It is being republished due to reader interest.
Image: Korean Central News Agency via Reuters.