It has more than 1.2 million active soldiers, and a further 7.7 million in reserve, making North Korea’s ground force one of the largest in the world.
Its troops are bolstered by 200,000 highly-trained paramilitary soldiers, so in terms of pure numbers, North Korea has an immediate advantage
It comes as no surprise that the North Korean military is one of the largest in the world. It has over one million active soldiers, millions of reservists, and paramilitary members. They have thousands of tanks and spend between a quarter and a third of the country’s budget on armed forces. If that in itself doesn’t scare you, their arsenal will. They have developed nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and even lasers. Here are some more seriously scary facts about the North Korean military forces.
Nobody knows exactly how much North Korea spends on their military.
There is a North Korean policy by the name of Songun, which prioritizes the military over all other governmental functions. This is actually quite tragic because it means that while people prepare for famine, money is still going to the army. However, no one seems to know exactly how much money this is. According to the North Korean state, it’s 15.8% of the country’s budget, but other estimates go from 25% to 38%. North Korea is in the state of constant financial difficulty, but their military is not something they’re willing to cut back on.
North Korea’s paramilitary force is huge.
North Korea has anywhere between 1.5 and 6 million trained reservists in its Workers and Peasants Militia. Most of these reservists are ready to pick up arms and fight if the country went to war. Nearly every male in the North as at least some kind of training, and this is mandatory. Anyone could be called upon to serve as a cannon fodder at any time.
North Korea uses banned lasers.
The UN banned blinding laser weapons, but North Korea still has a bunch of them. Before disbanding their laser program, China produced about two dozen ZM-87 blinding lasers, but North Korea is in possession of an undetermined amount of them.
Kim Jong-un launches missiles when the US makes him angry.
While normal kids throw a tantrum and slam the door, Kim Jong-un has another way of dealing with his anger. According to Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef who served the Kim family, the supreme leader has no intention of starting a war with the US or South Korea, but he does like a good show of force. When he’s upset about sanctions or false accusations, he orders to launch missiles.
North Korea has multiple cyber warfare units.
Yes, they can hack too. North Korea’s hacking capabilities became famously known around the world during the 2014 Sony hack. However, by then, their Bureau 212 had already hacked tens of thousands of computers in South Korea, banks, governmental organizations, and even the president’s office. They also have cyber units stationed in China.
North Korea has as many submarines as the US does.
The US has 72 submarines, North Korea has anywhere between 70 and 75. The US has the upper hand here though because the US subs are sophisticated boats capable of carrying dozens of nuclear or cruise missiles. The North Korean submarine fleet is either 1950s era Soviet models or small coastal patrol subs.
Military service is mandatory, even for women.
In North Korea, it is mandatory for every male over the age of 18 to serve a ten-year term in the armed forces. Until recently, the age was actually 13. They usually start as front-line infantry and are often poorly trained and have little in the way of food or equipment. This is reserved for the elite units. To make up for low birth and high mortality rates, just last year, Kim Jong-un ordered that women were to be conscripted as well, though for a shorter term – until they turn 23. Women often serve in front-line positions and are often seen marching in long, armed columns during military parades.
North Korea has a lot of tanks, artillery pieces, and rockets.
North Korea is believed to own about 4,100 tanks, 6,500 artillery guns, 2,500 rocket launchers and over 1,000 aircraft. This is immense for such a small country. However, most of the planes are grounded due to a lack of fuel, and most of the tanks and guns are too old to stand up to a sustained conflict.
North Korea has chemical weapons, and they are a complete mystery.
All that’s known in that North Korea possesses a robust chemical weapons program. Nothing else is known about what kind of weapons they have, or how much. While the Kim regime doesn’t back away from frequent nuclear threats, it rarely mentions the chemical weapons. However, according to defectors, they have everything from traditional WWI gasses like chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas to modern nerve agents like sarin and VX. There have been accusations from defectors that these agents are tested on political prisoners in labor camps.
North Korea has its own Hitler youth.
Tragically, there is no dictatorship without exploited child soldiers. The Young Red Guards, which were created in 1970, serve as the youth arm of the organized paramilitary force. The Young Red Guards are males aged 15 to 17. They go through 10 to 15 days of military and survival training to prepare them for conscription at 18. They’re expected to provide their own uniform and food.
North Korea has the biggest military per capita in the world.
North Korea has 47.8 active duty military members per 1000 population members. This is ten times higher than the US and the highest rate of any country in the world.
The US has a constantly evolving plan to beat North Korea.
OPLAN 5027 is a US strategy to fight alongside South Korea and defeat an invasion by the North. It was developed in the early 70s and is constantly in progress. As North Korea’s threat capabilities evolve, the strategy is revised. It incorporates the North’s nuclear, biological and cyber abilities while leaving enough forces to prevent Seoul from being bombed. Little more is known about these plans.
Nuclear suicide bombers.
In 2013, the world was shocked to see columns of North Korean soldiers carrying backpacks with the international symbol for nuclear power on them. Earlier indications of the North developing a “backpack bomb” unit made people put two and two together and the world freaked out. Did the North have man-portable nukes? Probably not, and the backpacks were most likely just for show. However, it did expose future plans of the Kim regime.
Their nuclear artillery is a mystery.
As far as the rest of the world knows, North Korea has conducted four nuclear weapon tests to date. Evidence exists of two more. However, nobody knows exactly how many nuclear weapons they have or the damage they can do. International watchdog groups have estimated North Korea is in possession of anywhere between 15 and 20 nuclear weapons. However, transporting the weapons don’t seem feasible, as their longest range missile can’t carry nukes and their longest-range missile capable of carrying one hasn’t been successfully tested. The furthest they could actually launch nuclear weapons at the moment would be Seoul, Tokyo or Bangkok.
North Korea has a huge special forces army.
The North Korean Special Operation Force is a highly capable special forces army which is responsible for some of the most well-known infiltration attempts into South Korea, including a series of tunnels under their shared border and a failed assassination attempt on the South Korean president in 1968.
North Korea claims it can turn Seoul into a sea of fire.
North Korea claims it has enough artillery pointed at the South’s capital to reduce it to rubble. While the North has around 700 artillery pieces and rocket launchers trained on Seoul and the initial bombardment would most likely tragically kill thousands, it’s more likely that a quarter of the shell fired would be duds and that after the South hitting back, North Korea’s attack would slowly trickle to nothing.
Aircraft Current inventory
|Ilyushin Il-28||Soviet Union||medium bomber||H-5||80||Chinese-built variant designated the H-5|
|Shenyang F-5||People’s Republic of China||fighter||106||derivative of the MiG-17|
|Shenyang J-6||People’s Republic of China||fighter||F-6||97||license built MiG-19|
|Chengdu J-7||People’s Republic of China||fighter||F-7||120||license built MiG-21|
|Antonov An-24||Ukraine||heavy transport||1|
|MD 500||United States||light utility||84||Aircraft were illegally obtained by circumventing U.S. export controls.|
|Mil Mi-8||Soviet Union||utility||40|
|Mil Mi-14||Soviet Union||ASW / SAR||8|
|Shenyang F-5||People’s Republic of China||jet trainer||FT-5||135|
|Shenyang FT-2||People’s Republic of China||jet trainer||30||Chinese production of the MiG-15UTI|
Aircraft subtypes and capabilities
- MiG-17F/F-5: The MiG-17 and Shenyang F-5 are subsonic jet fighters. North Korea operates the basic variant, armed with 1 x 37 mm cannon and 2 x 23 mm cannons, with a total round supply of 200 rounds. There is no provision for AA missiles, although the fighter could be modified to carry two AA-2 Atoll missiles. It is outdated because of its low maximum speed and may lack radar and any sort of modern avionics. Due to lack of modern avionics, it is defenseless in Beyond-Visual-Range combat, though its close range maneuverability makes it a powerful dogfighter. At least some have been modified into ground attack aircraft through the addition of two fuselage pylons.
- F-6B/MiG-19: The Shenyang F-6B is a Chinese clear-weather, day fighter version of the Soviet MiG-19. It has a supersonic capability and is armed with two AA-2 Atoll missiles as well as three 30 mm automatic cannons. Along with the F-5 and the MiG-21, it is equipped with a radar, which has very limited range and capabilities. Having a short range, small payload, and outdated avionics, the aircraft is largely obsolete, as its tiny missile load and poor avionics do not measure up to those of American or South Korean aircraft. Due to lack of modern avionics, it is defenseless in Beyond-Visual-Range combat. At least some have been modified into ground attack aircraft through the addition of four fuselage pylons.
- MiG-21: North Korea operates a large number of MiG-21PFMs, which are the country’s most numerous fighter. The MiG-21PFM is one of the later versions of the original MiG-21, with many improvements over earlier models. It includes systems such as a radar warning receiver and IFF, which are necessary to wage a modern air war; other more modern components are lacking on this fighter, though. The PFM is armed with a GSh-23 cannon with 200 rounds, two AA-2 Atoll missiles, and has a provision for a Kh-66 missile. At least 200 MiG-21s, including 30 built in China, are generally accepted as having been delivered to the KPAF.
- By 1966-67, 80 MiG-21F-13 were delivered, with the first 14 arriving in or before 1963. 65 MiG-21PFM were delivered 1968-1971 and 24 more in 1974. In May 1968, the United States estimated that a minimum of 400 fighter jets existed in the North Korean Air Force.
- According to the US DIA, by 1977 there was a total of 120 MiG-21s in DPRK, but by 1983 this number had dropped to 50; 150 MiG-21PFM and MiG-21MF were reportedly delivered in 1985. According to one estimate, 150 MiG-21s are in service. 50 MiG-21 trainers of different variants were delivered, of which 30 are believed to be in service. In 1999, 38 MiG-21bis izdeliye 75A were delivered from Kazakhstan.
- As of 2007, units known to be operating MiG-21s are:
- One squadron of 46th Air Regiment at Wonsan
- Three squadrons of 56th Air Regiment at Toksan, flying J-7B, MiG-21PFM and MiG-21bis, but it is not known if the types are mixed or not.
- One squadron of 60th Air Regiment at Pukch’ang
- Three squadrons of 86th Air Regiment at Koksan flying MiG-21PF and MiG-21U
- Three squadrons of an unidentified Air Regiment at Hwangju flying MiG-21PF and MiG-21U
- An unidentified reconnaissance/electronic warfare regiment.
- F-7B: The Chengdu F-7B is an improved Chinese-made copy of the Soviet MiG-21, armed with PL-7 AA missiles.
- MiG-23ML: The MiG-23ML is a third-generation fighter with many improvements over previous models. It has a look-down capability and effective longer-range radars, as well as other more modern avionics. The ML is very maneuverable, has a large payload and with proper maintenance and good pilot quality can be on par with some newer fighter aircraft.
- MiG-29B/UB: The MiG-29 is the KPAF’s most modern fighter, possessing all types of modern avionics and weaponry. North Korea operates approximately 40 MiG-29B/UBs, which are in flying condition and are used mostly for the defense of Pyongyang’s airspace. No other MiG-29 variants are confirmed to be flown, owned or purchased by the KPAF. However, photographs obtained by a US RC-135 aircraft intercepted by MiG-29’s in 2003 suggests that the KPAF may operate some MiG-29Ss
- Ilyushin Il-28: Having been developed in the late 1940s, the Il-28 (and the Chinese copy, the Harbin H-5) represents an old generation of bomber aircraft. North Korea originally received 24 Ilyushin Il-28 Beagles in 1960, and after those deliveries of the Chinese H-5 copy continued. The H-5 is a simple, robust, jet-engined bomber, capable of carrying up to 3,000 kilograms (6,600 lb) of bombs, including conventional, biological, chemical or nuclear. Its range is about 2,400 kilometers (1,500 mi), capable of hitting targets in most of Japan and all of South Korea. The bomber is supplied with a special aiming radar for the bombardier for precise targeting during poor visibility. Despite these advantages, it has a few grave drawbacks – a low maximum speed of 900 kilometers per hour (560 mph) and a fairly low ceiling of about 13,000 meters (43,000 ft), which renders the aircraft very vulnerable even to older types of SAMs and jet fighters. Despite this, it provides North Korea with a medium-range weapons platform. As of 2006, North Korea had 82 Il-28/H-5 of various types based at Changjin and Uiju.
Ground attack aircraft
- Su-7BMK: One of the first mass-produced Cold War-era Soviet ground attack aircraft, the Su-7BMK is a swept-wing aircraft for bombing missions and with a limited fighter capability. It is easy to maintain but requires very long airfields due to its wing configuration. The Su-7 is generally obsolete. It can carry up to 2,000 kg of armament and is armed with 2x 30 mm cannons.
- A/Q-5II: A ground attack fighter designed by China and based on the MiG-19, the A-5 has been in service since the 1970s. Like most of North Korea’s aircraft, it is obsolete compared to most modern aircraft, lacking modern avionics and weaponry.
- Su-25K: The Su-25K is the North’s most modern strike/CAS aircraft.
- MD 500D: The MD Helicopters MD 500D is a civilian helicopter which North Korea imported in 1985 by circumventing United States export controls. Ironically, the airframe of the 500D was manufactured in South Korea, was assembled in the United States, and was purchased through a German export firm. The 500D has no attack capabilities, but it can be easily modified to assume the role of a gunship. Of the 87 500Ds, North Korea imported, at least 60 are said to be modified in this manner. Although a modified 500D would be effective in the anti-personnel role, it only has a marginal chance of deterring lightly armored vehicles, so it is likely that the 500D would be used in a defensive role or employ guerrilla tactics. With a range of 605 km, the 500D should be capable of scouting much of the Korean Peninsula. However, as the civilian version lacks a radar, its role as an observation helicopter would be limited. The ROKA operates a military variant of the 500D known as the 500MD, which could lead to deceptive operations by the North Koreans if their 500Ds were painted with ROKA livery and infiltrated South Korea. Although there are slight differences between the airframes of the 500D and the 500MD, it would be difficult to differentiate between them if a soldier is unfamiliar with the differences or if the helicopter were flying at high speeds. However, this problem could be resolved if an IFF system is implemented, thereby further limiting the 500D’s role as an observation helicopter.
- Mi-2: Light transport and light combat helicopter. The Mi-2 Hoplite can be armed with PK M.Gs and 57 mm rocket pods and was able to provide close air support. 140 in service with the Korean People’s Air Force and 7,200 of these aircraft were produced. This aircraft worked well as a transport and light utility helicopter with the ability to hold up to 8 fully armed men and a pilot. But the Mi-2 was not much more than that because its light armor made it vulnerable to small arms fire.
- Mi-14: Derived from the flexible Mi-8 Hip design, the Mi14 Haze is a naval development of the Mi-8, capable of ASW, mine sweeping and SAR roles. It is unclear what the KPAF’s ASW arsenal consists of, but it is unlikely that their inventory contains equipment that is feasible in anti-submarine roles by modern standards. It is much more likely that the Mi-14 will be used in the SAR role, as it is unclear which variant of the Mi-14 the KPAF possesses.
- Mi-24: Also a development from the Mi-8 design, the Mi-24 Hind is a very feasible gunship with troop-transport capability. Although it is unknown which variant of the Mi-24 the KPAF possesses, it is likely to be the Mi-24D Hind-D variant, the most common type of Mi-24 in service around the world. It can be internally equipped with a 12.7 mm Gatling gun, a door mounted machine gun, and has a payload capacity of 1500 kg that can consist of anti-tank missiles, gun pods, rocket launchers, bombs and IR guided AAMs. While the KPAF’s anti-tank arsenal is unknown, they are likely to have at least a limited inventory to fit the Mi-24 as a capable attack helicopter. The Mi-24 also has a passenger compartment capable of accommodating up to 8 passengers, with armored plates protecting this section. The flight performance of the Mi-24 is far from agile, and its mobility would further diminish when carrying the extra passengers. The Mi-24 has a range of 450 km, making it a capable attack helicopter that can cover much of the South Korean peninsula even with a feasible combat load. The Hind would be an excellent complement to the Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft, along with escort fighters. Because it is capable of transporting troops into the front lines, the Mi-24 Hind may also rescue injured soldiers to transport them for treatment. The Mi-24 is also capable of carrying R-60 “Aphid” IR guided AAMs for self-defense. Despite its age, the Mi-24 is still very much capable as a gunship and an anti-armour helicopter.
- An-2: The Antonov An-2 is propeller-driven cargo and utility aircraft, the world’s largest biplane. Although primarily used in the civilian role as an agricultural and firefighting aircraft in other countries, the An-2 is capable of transporting up to 14 passengers in its rear compartment. The North Korean Special Forces possesses around 300 of these aircraft, and due to its 845 km range, it may be used by the KPAF to deploy special forces agents well behind the South Korean front lines. Because the An-2 is almost silent and can operate at very low speeds, the An-2 may also be used as a light bomber in addition to its ability to paratroop special forces agents. Since the An-2 is a STOL aircraft that requires minimal runway space, the airfields for the An-2 are less vulnerable compared to others and may be placed discreetly around North Korea.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
North Korea is believed to operate some 300 reconnaissance drones and 10 attack UAVs.
- Banghyeon: Banghyeon drones are remodeled Chinese D-4 UAVs with a fuselage measuring 3.6 m (12 ft) long, with a 4.8 m (16 ft) wingspan, and a top speed of 160 km/h (99 mph)
- Vega Shmel (Bumblebee): 10 Shmel-1 UAVs were bought from Russia in the 1990s. They have a range of 60 km (37 mi), a top speed of 150 km/h (93 mph), and are capable of carrying bombs.
- Sky-09: The Sky-09 is a Chinese commercial UAV acquired by North Korea and modified with a different paint scheme, a muffler to make it quieter, and different cameras. It weighs 12 kg (26 lb), has a delta wing configuration with a wingspan of 1.92 m (6.3 ft), and has a payload of 3 kg (6.6 lb). It is launched using a catapult, can operate in a robotic mode to fly over pre-programmed GPS coordinates to take photos, and lands using a parachute. Endurance is 90 minutes and top speed is 90 km/h (56 mph). When controlled, the Sky-09 can operate 40 km (25 mi) from its controller but can travel 60 km (37 mi) in robotic mode.
- MQM-107 Streaker: North Korea reportedly acquired MQM-107 Streaker target-towing drones from a middle-eastern country, probably Syria, to develop unmanned attack aircraft based on the Streakers technology. According to Fox News, the South Korean “Yonhap” News Agency reported that “Its North Korea’s powerful military placed explosives on the drones in a number of tests, but was yet to master the technology.”
The DoD’s annual report to congress about North Korea’s military capabilities states that North Korean press reported that the UAV was capable of carrying out precision strikes by ramming a target.
- There are three other smaller UAVs that have been identified, Panghyon (1 and 2), Tupolev Tu-143 and Turumi