Key point: Seoul's K2 is a formidable tank that is built for Korea's terrain.
The South Korean army has peculiar needs. For one, just across the Demilitarized Zone, North Korea possesses one of the largest tank armies in the world.
In this cauldron of densely packed military forces, both sides share a peninsula that is also very mountainous. During the Korean War, many battles were fought in places such as the Punchbowl, Pork Chop Hill, Old Baldy, Bloody Ridge and Heartbreak Ridge, just to name a few.
Any weapon built specifically to exploit the peninsula’s terrain would have an edge. So, when South Korea produced its first domestically designed tank, Seoul took the mountainous terrain into full account.
South Korea started to think about modern main battle tanks in the late ’70s when North Korea began fielding T-62s with 115-millimeter guns — outmatching Seoul’s M-48 Pattons and their 90-millimeter guns.
Thus, the United States gave South Korea permission to domestically assemble a modified Abrams tank termed the K1. The K1, like the original Abrams, first sported a 105-millimeter gun. However, the K1 is smaller than the Abrams and it has a diesel rather than a gas turbine engine.
The K1 also has an uncanny, superficial resemblance to the larger American tank, so much so that U.S. troops stationed in Korea nicknamed it the “baby Abrams.”
But South Korea owns very little of the technology behind the K1. Eighty percent of the components came from other countries, chiefly the United States. So while the K1 — which is still in service — outclasses anything the North Koreans have, South Korea wanted a new, domestically designed tank that would surpass any foreseeable North Korean threat.
Furthermore, the South Koreans wanted to own all the technology so they could export it.
The result was the K2 Black Panther.
Development started in 1995 and cost $260 million. In the end, South Korea designed a tank that on paper appears to be at equal, if not better than, the specifications of current NATO tanks.
To achieve this, the Koreans looked all over the world for inspiration, technology and know-how — and combined it all into a formidable machine that is distinctively Korean.