How Does North Korea’s Military Compare to South Korea’s?

It's one of the most secretive states on Earth, a perennial thorn in the side of the West and it has just conducted a claimed underground test of a hydrogen bomb. But how scared should we be of North Korea and its military?

"Supreme Power"
Under the 'Songun' (military-first) policy, the Korean People's Army (how the state's entire military is known) is the central institution of government and society. The "supreme repository of power", it guides domestic and foreign policy.

The country achieves its massive personnel numbers (see below) through universal conscription for men and selective conscription for women. Troops serve a minimum of 10 years of military service, starting at the age of 17.

Unusually, almost all officers start their careers as privates, with only a select few attending military academies without prior service. The result is an egalitarian system where officers understand the lives of lower ranks, with little of the "military nobility" evident in other nations.

The Numbers
North Korea has the second largest number of total military personnel in the world - with 7,679,000 troops out of an approximate population of 25 million. There are 1,190,000 active, 6,300,000 reserve and 189,000 paramilitary personnel.

The only country to have more troops? South Korea. The North's sworn enemies have 8,134,500 personnel - with 630,000 of those active, 7,500,000 reserve and 4,500 paramilitary.

It's hard to know the North's exact military budget, but it's been estimated at around 20.8 per cent of its $40 billion (£33bn) - again estimated - Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

By comparison, the US spent $597bn (£494bn) in 2015, 3.3 per cent of GDP. Britain is spending $65bn (£54bn) this fiscal year and has pledged to spend 2% of GDP on defence for the next three years.

Most of North Korea's arms are supplied by China and Russia, while annual military exports amount to around $100 million (£83m).

The Army
North Korea has 950,000 active Army personnel, with most soldiers armed with locally-produced Kalashnikov-type rifles like the Type 58 assault rifle. The Army also uses ZM-87 anti-personnel lasers, which are banned under the UN Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons.

Like its southern rivals, it has been maintaining a large number armoured vehicles for decades. Although some are now produced domestically, most are Soviet-made. It boasts 5,500 tanks and 2,200 infantry fighting vehicles.

By comparison, Britain has 227 tanks and 2,319 more heavily armoured fighting vehicles. North Korea also has 8,600 artillery pieces and 4,800 multiple rocket launcher systems.

South Korea's Army, meanwhile, has 2,500 main battle tanks, 5,800 artillery pieces, 2,700 armoured fighting vehicles, 60 guided missile systems and 600 helicopters, along with 495,000 troops.

It's also, crucially, got the continuous supporting presence of the US, which has 28,500 personnel stationed in the country.

The Navy
While North Korea's Navy is anything but conventional, it is capable of accomplishing key missions. It's undoubtedly, however, weak in a traditional sense.

With up to 60,000 sailors, the country's naval strengths lie in submarine warfare. Of its 810 vessels, 70 are submarines and 10 midget submarines. The strongest element of its surface fleet, meanwhile, is its three known frigates and four corvettes.

The rest of the fleet is made of minehunters and sweepers, smaller boats and hovercraft. Around half of the overall 800+ total, however, is estimated to be tank landing ships, which would only be used in case of an invasion.

Ultimately, North Korea's navy has one overarching mission - defending the Kim regime from outside attack - although it's also used for asymmetric warfare against the South and intelligence gathering.

The main problem for the country is that its long economic decline seems to have made it incapable of building warships larger than 200 tons. As a result, it's considered a 'brown water navy', as opposed to seaworthy 'blue-water' navies, which can conduct operations in open ocean.

It also has the unusual and undesirable distinction of having two navies - one based on the East coast and one on the West - which can't support, or even reach, each other.

With no sea passage from one side of country to the other (see above), the limited range of most of its vessels makes it near-impossible for a ship on one coast to visit the other. So, the navies operate mainly within the 50km exclusion zone off land.

The Air Force
Unusually, North Korea's Air Force has significantly more manpower than the Navy, with an estimated 110,000 personnel. Again though, it currently exists mostly as a defensive force, with its primary task to defend North Korean airspace.

Even so, it has 940 aircraft, mostly of Soviet and Chinese origin.

The state also has a high saturation of multi-layered, overlapping, mutually supporting air defence sites boasting anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles.

Although much of the equipment is outdated, the density of air defence capability would prove a serious challenge to enemy air attack.

A Nuclear Threat?
One of the most concerning North Korean capabilities is, of course, its much-debated nuclear weapons threat.

The country declared in 2009 that it had developed a nuclear weapon, and possessed a small stockpile.

It's also carried out a number of high-profile tests - six, in fact, since 2006. America lies just under 6,500 miles from North Korea, putting the US within striking distance.

Allies like Japan, and US bases in regions like Guam and South Korea, are of course much closer - with the North saying it is examining its plans for attacking Guam.

There's been little past evidence that the country could ensure an accurate strike though, or even bring an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) down to hit its target.

Officials with South Korea's defence ministry, however say they have seen preparations in the North for an ICBM test to show off its claimed ability to target the US.

Other Capabilities
The Pentagon believes North Korea probably has a chemical weapons program - which is prohibited under international law - and is likely to possess a stockpile of weapons.

It's also been developing cyber warfare capabilities since the 1980s, with around 1,800 highly-trained hackers in the secretive Bureau 121 - the country's elite cyber warfare unit - as of 2014.

In December of that year, the unit was accused of using its capability to hack Sony and make threats, leading to the cancellation of a global theatrical release of The Interview, a film which lampooned Kim Jong-un.

So how big a threat does North Korea pose? We'll leave that for you to decide...


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