While North Korea’s elite 105th armored division was out for its semi-annual field training, it suffered an embarrassing accident as one of their tanks slipped off a mountain trail and flipped over. Two of the four-man crew were injured and the tank was recovered. Several commanders in the 105th will lose their jobs and career prospects over this.
It is surprising that there are not more such accidents because North Korea has less and less fuel for the military, a shortage that has grown more acute over the last two decades and reached the point where the field exercises in February and August have grown shorter with even fewer days where the tank drivers can maneuver their tracked vehicles over realistic terrain. Their commanders are supposed to take this into account when conducting field exercises and that usually means the tanks do not traverse any difficult terrain. This latest accident will mean even more restrictions on drivers operating outside their base. These tanks rarely move far except for the two training exercises. The drivers spend a lot of time going through the motions while in the tank, but there is little fuel available for actually moving the tanks much.
The worst aspect of this accident is that the 105th division is the premier tank unit in the North Korean army. North Korea has about 3,000 tanks, most of them decades old Chinese copies of the Russian T-55, which was designed in the 1950s. About a third of North Korean tanks are local designs, based on the Russian T-62 and T-72. These tanks were the models for the North Korean 1980s Chonma-ho (upgraded T-62) and 1990s Pokpung-ho (upgraded T-72.) Before the 1980s North Korea was able to build T-62s under license and that provided the experience needed to design their own tank. After 1991 there was no more military or financial aid from Russia and that meant fewer resources to build or use tanks. All the several hundred Pokpung-ho tanks built are believed to be in the three brigades of the 105th division. The older Chonma-ho and locally built T-62s equip the other tank brigades that comprise the spearhead for any ground attacks on South Korea.