Tanks of South Korea

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An K1 88-Tank tank of the South Korean Army.

The history and development of the tank in the South Korea spans the period from their adoption after World War II with the foundation of the South Korean Army, into the Cold War and the present. Over this period Korea has moved from being an operator of United States designed and produced tanks to being the designer and manufacturer of first class tanks in its own right


USMC M46 Patton, 8 July 1952. Note the different rear plate and twin fender-mounted exhausts.

Tanks in the South Korean Army have over several decades of history, from the M4A3E8 "Easy Eight" variant of Sherman tanks, and M47 and M48 Patton series tanks to the K1A1 Main Battle Tank and will soon see the K2 Black Panther (흑표;黑豹 Heukpyo). In the 1970s, a number of plans were made to upgrade the existing tanks such as the M48 Pattons to the M48A3 and A5 standard, as well as obtaining the license to domestically produce Germany's Leopard 1 main battle tank. Only the upgrades to the Pattons were carried out, with the results the Republic of Korea began to undertake a program to develop and produce a South Korean tank, heavily based on the M1. The development of the vehicle which resulted in the South Korean K1 88-Tank was completed in 1983, with a prototype being delivered to the South Korean government in the same year. A long history of invasions by neighbors and the unresolved tension with North Korea have prompted South Korea to allocate 2.6% of its GDP and 15% of all government spending to its military (Government share of GDP: 14.967%), which has allowed its own development of tanks.

History of the South Korean army[edit]

Supporting the 8th ROK Army Division, a M4A3E8 Sherman tank fires its 76mm gun at KPA bunkers at "Napalm Ridge", Korea, 11 May 1952

Despite the initial plan of a unified Korea in the 1943 Cairo Declaration, escalating Cold War antagonism between the Soviet Union and the United States eventually led to the establishment of separate governments, each with its own ideology, leading to Korea's division into two political entities in 1948: North Korea and South Korea. In the North, a former anti-Japanese guerrilla and communist activist, Kim Il-sung gained power through Soviet support. In the South, elections supervised by the United Nations were held, a Republic of Korea was declared, and Syngman Rhee inaugurated as its first president. In December, the UN General Assembly declared this "a lawful government" and "the only such government in Korea."[1]

The United States engaged in the decolonization of Korea (mainly in the South, with the Soviet Union engaged in North Korea) from Japan after World War II. After three years of military administration by the United States, the South Korean government was established. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, sparking the Korean War, the Cold War's first major conflict that continued until 1953. When the North Koreans invaded South Korea in June 1950, using T-34s, the South Koreans had no armor of their own so had to retreat in the face of North Korean tanks. Soon after the invasion of South Korea, the United Nations voted to support the South Koreans. With the Korean War so closely following on the heels of World War II, many of the top tanks used in World War II were also utilized during the Korean War. The first tanks to be used by UN forces in South Korea were American M24 Chaffee light tanks, which were also used during the Second World War. They were sent to South Korea from Japanese army bases. While the Chaffee was useful for infantry support, it could not stand up to a T-34.

Knocked out North Korean T-34 during the Korean War in September 1950 near Seoul after the amphibious landings at Inchon.
A North Korean T-34-85 caught on a bridge south of Suwon by American attack aircraft during the Korean War.

Upon the onset of the Korean War, U.S. forces were sent to defend South Korea against invasion by North Korea and later China. At the time, the Soviet Union had boycotted the United Nations (UN), thus forfeiting their veto rights. This allowed the UN to intervene when it became apparent that the superior North Korean forces would unify the entire country. The North Korea tanks confronted a tankless ROK Army armed with few modern anti-tank weapons,[2] including American World War II–model 2.36-inch (60 mm) M9 bazookas, effective only against the 45 mm side armor of the T-34-85 tank. Under-equipped ROK Army border units used American 105 mm howitzers as anti-tank guns to stop the tanks heading the KPA columns, firing high-explosive anti-tank ammunition (HEAT) over open sights to good effect; at the war's start, the ROK Army had 91 howitzers, but lost most to the invaders.[3]

Countering the initial combat imbalance, the UN Command reinforcement matériel included heavier US M4 Sherman, M26 Pershing, M46 Patton, and British Cromwell and Centurion tanks that proved effective against North Korean armor, reversing the situation.[4]

M24 Chaffee

In the Korean War M24 Chaffee's fared poorly against the North Korean T-34-85s. So the M24's were put in reconnaissance roles, supported by heavier tanks such as the M4, M26, and M46.

The heavier M26 Pershing was deemed unsatisfactory due to its inferior mobility, and in November, 1949, the upgraded M26 received a new power plant and a main gun with bore evacuator, and the M46 Patton designation. Less than a thousand were upgraded to M46 standard.

Marines of 1st Marine Division at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir supported by M46 Patton tank.

On 8 August 1950 the first M46 Pattons landed in South Korea. The tank proved superior to the much lighter North Korean T-34-85, which were encountered in relatively small numbers. By the end of 1950, 200 M46 Pattons had been fielded, forming about 15% of US tank strength in Korea; the balance of 1,326 tanks shipped to Korea during 1950 included 679 M4A3 Shermans, 309 M26 Pershings, and 138 M24 Chaffee light tanks.[5] Subsequent shipments of M46 and M46A1 Pattons allowed all remaining M26 Pershings to be withdrawn during 1951, and most Sherman equipped units were also reequipped.[6]

By 1953 the M24 Chaffee's were completely replaced by the new M41 tank in the United States Army which was later designated the M41 Walker Bulldog. The M41 was an agile and well armed. The Walker Bulldog was rushed to the battlefield but saw limited combat.

M41 Walker Bulldog

British tanks, the Centurion tank with Cromwell tanks for reconnaissance, arrived in Korea in late 1950. The tanks had to operate in much colder conditions than their usual North German Plain deployments. The Centurions covered the retreat at the battle of the Imjin River and were used throughout the war.

Unlike in the Second World War (1939–45), in which the tank proved a decisive weapon, the Korean War featured few large-scale tank battles. The mountainous, heavily forested terrain prevented large masses of tanks from maneuvering. After huge advances on both sides, and massive losses among Korean civilians in both the north and the south, the war eventually reached a stalemate. The 1953 armistice, never signed by South Korea, split the peninsula along the demilitarized zone near the original demarcation line. No peace treaty was ever signed, resulting in the two countries remaining technically at war.

The South Korean Armed Forces were created in 1948, following the division of Korea, and the Republic of Korea Armed Forces is one of the largest standing armed forces in the world. The South Korean armed forces were largely constabulary forces until the outbreak of the Korean War. It was heavily damaged by North Korean and Chinese attacks and in the beginning relied almost entirely on American support for weapons, ammunition and technology. Between 1950 and 1953, during the Korean War, the two opposing armies of South and North Korea received large quantities of military supplies and vehicles and tanks from foreign powers.

Organization of South Korean Army armored forces[edit]

M-47 Patton I tank
M48 A2C tank

Beginning in 1945, the country which became South Korea was controlled by American forces and the remaining IJA forces which remained in place to assist until they were repatriated to Japan.

At the end of World War II, the South Korean Army was formed but with no tanks until the Korean War, and at the beginning counted only on equipment composed of very few armored vehicles and even fewer tanks. The South Korean Army would receive medium battle tanks M4A3E8 "Easy Eight" variant of Sherman tanks, and M47 and M48 Patton series tanks from the United States. These tanks were an important modernization of South Korea armored firepower.

The M4A3E8 "Easy Eight" variant of Sherman tanks, dating back to World War II, were eventually retired from service by the Republic of Korea Army, and the backbone of the South Korean armor was formed up of M47 and M48 Patton tanks which are being phased out and replaced. Tanks of the ROK Army include these older M48 Patton series, as well as the more recent K1, K1A1 which bear a 120 mm smooth-bore gun and are of local manufacture, and Russian-built T-80U. Today the ROK Army has 2,872 tanks, including 1,524 K1 and K1A1 tanks.

Modern South Korean armor: present[edit]

The South Korean K2 Black Panther tank

By the 1970s, the Republic of Korea was desperately in need of additional main battle tanks. M4A3E8 "Easy Eight" variant of Sherman tanks, dating back to World War II, had been retired from service by the Republic of Korea Army, and the backbone of the South Korean armor was formed up of M47 and M48 Patton tanks. Meanwhile, North Koreans had both numerical and technological advantages over the South Korean armor with their T-62 main battle tanks.

At first, attempts were made to obtain the United States' M60A1 Pattons, but they ended in failure. It was deemed that, even if the M60A1s were obtainable, there would not be enough of them to give the South Korean forces a significant advantage over existing North Korean tanks. A number of other plans were also devised, such as upgrading the existing M48 Pattons to the M48A3 and A5 standard, as well as obtaining a license to domestically produce Germany's Leopard 1 main battle tank. Only the upgrades to the Pattons were carried out, with the results being the M48A3K and M48A5K, while producing Leopard 1s was deemed counterproductive so the Koreans made plans to domestically produce main battle tanks that were comparable to the newer generation of main battle tanks. The winning design was based on the XM1, the prototype of M1 Abrams, by Chrysler Defense, the company which was later sold to General Dynamics and renamed General Dynamics Land Systems. Soon afterwards, South Korean officials were dispatched to General Dynamics Land Systems for supervision of the design, which would spawn the XK1. The XK1 retained the XM1's M68E1 105 mm rifled main gun, which would also be domestically produced under license with the designation KM68, as well as a fire control system by Hughes Aircraft Company and the Nd:YAG laser rangefinder. One of the major differences was the addition of tank commander's independent panoramic sights on the XK1, which was missing on XM1, giving the XK1 the capability to utilize the fire-control system (FCS) more effectively, notably by engaging in hunter-killer tactics, which the M1 series could not do until the introduction of the M1A2. The tank commander's panoramic sights were not, however, equipped with light amplification or thermal optics, which led to the tank commander having to rely on personal night vision goggles to operate his sights, while the gunner's sights were equipped with a thermal observation device, which meant that the XK1 had superior sensors until the introduction of the M1A2.

XK1 tanks are also equipped with a hybrid suspension system consisting of hydropneumatic system on road wheels 1, 2 and 6, while 3, 4 and 5 are equipped with torsion bars, a feature not present on the XM1, granting the XK1 greater stability and ability to elevate and depress the main gun nearly twice as much as tanks equipped with torsion bars alone (+20 to -9.7 degrees for the XK1 versus +10 to -5 for the XM1).

The development of the vehicle was completed in 1983, with a prototype being delivered to the South Korean government in the same year. After the production of approximately 450 K1s, the Gunner's Primary Sights (GPS) designed by Hughes was replaced by the Gunner's Primary Tank Thermal Sights (GPTTS) by Texas Instruments. The new system also replaced the Nd:YAG laser rangefinder used in the Hughes unit with a CO2-based one, which has proven to be safer to the users' eyes, although having less effective range than the former in foul weather. While the exact composition of the armor has still not been released, it has been confirmed that K1 is equipped with composite Chobham armour.

Today the South Korean army has 2,500 tanks in operation, including the K1A1 and K2 Black Panther, which form the backbone of the South Korean army's mechanized armor and infantry forces. A sizable arsenal of many artillery systems, including 1,700 self-propelled K55 and K9 Thunder howitzers and 680 helicopters and UAVs of numerous types, are assembled to provide additional fire, reconnaissance, and logistics support. South Korea's smaller but more advanced artillery force and wide range of airborne reconnaissance platforms are pivotal in the counter-battery suppression of North Korea's over-sized artillery force, which operates more than 13,000 artillery systems deployed in various state of fortification and mobility.[7]

The future replacement for the K1 MBT has been baptized the K2 Black Panther (Korean: 흑표), which will be fitted with a 1,500 hp (1,100 kW) water-cooled Diesel engine, 120 mm/L55 main gun, and coaxial machine guns. The new tank will also feature radar equipment as well as all-bearing laser detection system and reactive armor comparable to the American M1A2 and French Leclerc.

South Korean armor outside of Korea[edit]

South Korean soldiers of the Zaytun Division.

From time to time, South Korea has sent its troops overseas to assist American forces. It has participated in most major conflicts that the United States has been involved in the past 50 years. South Korea dispatched 325,517 troops to fight alongside American, Australian, Filipino, New Zealand and South Vietnamese soldiers in the Vietnam War, with a peak strength of 50,000. In 2004, South Korea sent 3,300 troops of the Zaytun Division to help re-building in northern Iraq, and was the third largest contributor in the coalition forces after only the US and Britain.[8] Beginning in 2001, South Korea had so far deployed 24,000 troops in the Middle East region to support the War on Terrorism. A further 1,800 were deployed since 2007 to reinforce UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon.

List of Armored equipment of the Republic of Korea Armed Forces[edit]

A Sherman M4A3E8 "Easy Eight" variant 76 mm armed tank


Armored vehicles[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "195 (III) The problem of the independence of Korea", December 12, 1948, Resolutions Adopted by the General Assembly During its Third Session, p. 25.
  2. ^ Stokesbury 1990, p. 39.
  3. ^ Goulden 1983, p. 51.
  4. ^ Stokesbury 1990, pp. 182–184.
  5. ^ Steven J. Zaloga "M26/M46 Pershing Tank 1943–1953" ISBN 1-84176-202-4 pp.39-40
  6. ^ Donald W Boose Jr."US Army Forces in the Korean War 1950-53" ISBN 1-84176-621-6 pp.52,75-86
  7. ^ "OPLAN 5027 Major Theater War – West". 
  8. ^ "Zaytun Division official website". Retrieved February 17, 2009. [dead link]

External links[edit]

Template:World War II tanks