Is North Korea's Huge Tank Force Too Old To Fight?

Kyle Mizokami

Key point: Don't underestimate having a large number of guns.

For decades, North Korea has maintained strong armored forces as part of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), with thousands of tanks today in service. North Korean tanks and mechanized infantry are meant to liberate the southern half of the peninsula in a lightning war that Pyongyang would win before the United States could bolster Seoul’s defenses. Unfortunately for the KPA, the end of the Cold War has halted the flow of modern tanks and other weaponry, dulling what was once a sharp sword.

North Korea’s use of armor goes back to the Korean War, when the 105th Armored Brigade—later 105th Armored Division—took part in the initial attack on South Korea. Trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, the 105th Division’s 120 T-34/85 tanks spearheaded the attack down the western half of the country. The tanks were particularly effective not only against the South Korean Army, which had few to no antitank weapons, but also against early U.S. ground forces. The 105th Division fought all the way south to the Pusan Perimeter, but was largely destroyed by early 1951, used up in the fighting with UN forces.

The effectiveness of even half-trained armor such as the 105th Armored Division made a strong impression on North Korean thinking, and after the war the KPA was rebuilt with considerable tank forces. Tank brigades and battalions are infused into North Korean divisions and brigades, giving them the ability to exploit successful local attacks with an immediately available tank force. The 105th Seoul Guards Armored Division, resurrected after the war and considered the most prestigious and modern unit, is equipped with two brigades of tanks and one brigade of mechanized infantry.

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