North Korea has over 4,000 tanks, of which many are old and completely obsolete. However, North Korea does have one tank that might be somewhat modern—though it's based on tech from the 1960s. Here is a short primer on the DPRK's tank forces with a focus on what is their best tank.
North Korea attempts to be as self-reliant as possible and tries to provide itself with its own home-grown weapon designs. This desire to independently produce weapons probably stems from North Korea’s self-perception as a former client state of both China and the Soviet Union, and the DPRK's subsequent abandonment by both countries.
Both China and the Soviet Union supplied North Korea with tanks after the Korean War, making the DPRK’s tank corps quite large. The quality and condition of North Korean tanks is probably highly variable, with North Korea operating decidedly aged World War II T-34 tanks, vintage Soviet T-55s, older T-62s, and a mixture of Chinese Type 62 and Type 59 tanks as well.
Tanks play an important role in North Korean strategy. In the event of another war on the Korean peninsula, DPRK tank formations would likely attempt to break southwards through the DMZ. A breakout attempt along the world’s most fortified border would come at great cost, and tankers would probably suffer huge losses, especially against South Korean and American armor. The Chonma-ho is an attempt to narrow the United States’ and South Korea’s armor edge.
Chonma-ho: Not as Obsolete?
It is estimated that the majority of the Chonma-ho’s components are domestically manufactured, possibly upwards of 90 percent. The Chonma-ho shares several similarities with the Soviet-designed T-62, which the Chonma-ho is a copy of. The main gun is a 115 millimeter smoothbore, and like the T-62 predecessor, secondary armaments are a 14.5 millimeter heavy machine-gun and a 7.62 medium machine gun.
Several variants of the Chonma-ho exist, with later models incorporating improved features, particularly armor upgrades. The original Chonma-ho had simple and vulnerable steel armor. This issue was initially addressed by incorporating spaced armor to the turret design by additional steel plating that leaves a gap between the extra armor and turret.
The Chonma-ho may be the first DPRK tank that uses explosive-reactive armor paneling to defeat tandem warheads, seen in American TOW and Javelin missiles—though the paneling does not cover the tank fully, and offers many gaps in protection.
Other upgrades to newer Chonma-hos appear to be a bigger 125 millimeter main gun, and newer explosive-reactive armor. The Chonma-ho hull has also been incorporated into a self-propelled howitzer, of DPRK domestic design.
Thanks to the Chonma-ho’s more advanced features, the tank would probably be used by more skilled tanker crews, the so-called elites, to spearhead any breakthrough into South Korea. The Chonma-ho’s more advanced features are why it’s been a successful North Korean export to Iran, which has a particular affinity for North Korean technology.
Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture.