About 5 percent of North Korea's population serve on active duty, according to a new DoD report. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)
North Korea has the fourth largest military in the world when it comes to manpower, with as many as 1.2 million people serving on active duty. But in terms of modernization there is — thankfully — much room for improvement.
Despite the country’s economic limitations, it remains “one of the United States’ most critical security challenges,” according to the Defense Department’s new report to Congress on the military developments in North Korea.
One major reason to be concerned is the country’s continued willingness, under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, to “undertake provocative and destabilizing behavior.”
From attacks on the Republic of Korea to the pursuit for nuclear weapons, there is reason to pay attention. So here’s a breakdown of North Korea’s military might in five general categories:
The ground forces of the Korean People’s Army are spread out in several thousand underground facilities and include long-range cannon and rocket artillery capable of reaching deep into South Korea, the report states. There are “numerous light and medium tanks,” and evidence suggests North Korea continues to upgrade its equipment.
Air and sea
The North Korean air force includes more than 1,300 aircraft, mainly legacy Soviet models. Its “most capable combat aircraft” is the MiG-29, procured in the late 1980s, and its most recent aircraft buy was a number of MiG-21s from Kazakhstan in 1999.
Its navy has only shown “limited modernization,” although the country has a number of small submarines that while “unsophisticated” are quite “durable.”
The report appears to do a little guess work when it comes to North Korea’s cyber skills. The country “probably has a military offensive cyber operations capability.” It’s a cost-effective measure of attack so it may be appealing to the leadership given the country’s “bleak economic outlook.” Last year, North Korea was allegedly behind two successful attacks that targeted data erasure on South Korean banking, media and government networks.
DoD describes North Korea’s ballistic missile defense mission, known as Strategic Rocket Forces, as “ambitious,” noting that it “has deployed mobile theater ballistic missiles capable of reaching targets throughout ROK, Japan and the Pacific theater.” In March 2013, North Korea made “the SRF the focus of its threat to launch a nuclear attack.” Targets included the U.S. mainland, Hawaii, Guam and U.S. bases in South Korea.
During military parades in 2012 and 2013, the country displayed Hwasong-13 missiles — intercontinental ballistic missiles that, if successfully designed and developed, could reach the U.S. The report adds, however, that these missiles have not been flight tested so “current reliability as a weapon system would be low.”
“One of the gravest concerns about North Korea’s activities in the international arena is its demonstrated willingness to proliferate nuclear technology,” the report states. North Korea continues to conduct nuclear tests, most recently in February 2013, and invest in nuclear infrastructure.
Sources report the country is also investigating bacterial and viral agents that “could support an offensive biological weapons program.” It’s likely the country also has a stockpile of chemical weapons including nerve, blister, blood and choking agents.