North Korea – Top 30th Strongest Militaries In The World
North Korea – Top 30th Strongest Militaries In The World

North Korea (officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) has been flexing its military muscle since Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un took office in 2011. The Korean People's Army is the military force of North Korea and the armed wing of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK). Under the Songun policy, it is the central institution of North Korean society. Kim Jong-un serves as Supreme Commander and the chairman of the Central Military Commission. The KPA consists of five branches: the Ground Force, the Naval Force, the Air and Anti-Air Force, the Strategic Rocket Forces, and the Special Operation Force.

Take a look at the country’s history, strength and powers, and how it is the 30th strongest militaries in the world.

How strong is North Korean Military: Strength and Powers

Photo: Business Insider
Photo: Business Insider

For 2022, North Korea is ranked 30 of 140 out of the countries considered for the annual GFP review. It holds a PwrIndx score of 0.4621 (a score of 0.0000 is considered 'perfect').

The KPA's annual budget is approximately US$6 billion. In 2009, the U.S. Institute for Science and International Security reported that North Korea may possess fissile material for around two to nine nuclear warheads. The North Korean Songun ("Military First") policy elevates the KPA to the primary position in the government and society.

According to North Korea's state news agency, military expenditures for 2010 made up 15.8 percent of the state budget. Most analyses of North Korea's defence sector, however, estimate that defence spending constitutes between one-quarter and one-third of all government spending. As of 2003, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, North Korea's defence budget consumed some 25 percent of central government spending. In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, according to figures released by the Polish Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, between 32 and 38 percent of central government expenditures went towards defence.

North Korea sells missiles and military equipment to many countries worldwide.[30] In April 2009, the United Nations named the Korea Mining and Development Trading Corporation (KOMID) as North Korea's primary arms dealer and main exporter of equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons. It also named Korea Ryonbong as a supporter of North Korea's military related sales.

Historically, North Korea has assisted a vast number of revolutionary, insurgent and terrorist groups in more than 62 countries. A cumulative total of more than 5,000 foreign personnel have been trained in North Korea, and over 7,000 military advisers, primarily from the Reconnaissance General Bureau, have been dispatched to some forty-seven countries. Some of the organisations which received North Korean aid include the Polisario Front, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the Communist Party of Thailand, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Zimbabwean Fifth Brigade received its initial training from KPA instructors. North Korean troops allegedly saw combat during the Libyan–Egyptian War and the Angolan Civil War. Up to 200 KPAF pilots took part in the Vietnam War, scoring several kills against U.S. aircraft. Two KPA anti-aircraft artillery regiments were sent to North Vietnam as well.

What are North Korea’s conventional military capabilities?

Photo: Al Jazeera
Photo: Al Jazeera

North Korea’s military is the world’s fourth largest, with nearly 1.3 million active personnel, accounting for about 5 percent of the total population. More than six hundred thousand others serve as reserve soldiers. Article 86 of the North Korean constitution [PDF] states, “National defense is the supreme duty and honor of citizens,” and it requires all citizens to serve in the military.

The regime spent an average of $3.6 billion annually on the military from 2007 to 2017, according to the U.S. State Department. North Korea’s neighbors and adversaries outspend it in dollar-to-dollar comparisons, and defense experts say it operates with aging equipment and technology. Yet, the regime’s forward-deployed military position and missiles aimed at Seoul ensure that Pyongyang’s conventional capabilities remain a constant threat to its southern neighbor.

North Korea has deployed munitions near and along its border with South Korea and also has conventional missiles aimed at its neighbor and Japan in a bid to deter potential attacks. According to a 2021 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a United Kingdom–based think tank, the North Korean military has approximately 550 combat-capable aircraft, 290 helicopters, 400 combatant vessels, 280 amphibious vessels, 70 submarines, 4,000 tanks, 2,500 armored vehicles, and 5,500 multiple-rocket launchers.

The history of North Korean military

Photo:  Christian Science Monitor
Photo: Christian Science Monitor

Korean People's Revolutionary Army 1932–1948

Kim Il-sung's anti-Japanese guerrilla army, the Korean People's Revolutionary Army [ko], was established on 25 April 1932. This revolutionary army was transformed into the regular army on 8 February 1948. Both these are celebrated as army days, with decennial anniversaries treated as major celebrations, except from 1978 to 2014 when only the 1932 anniversary was celebrated.

Korean Volunteer Army 1939–1948

In 1939, the Korean Volunteer Army (KVA), was formed in Yan'an, China. The two individuals responsible for the army were Kim Tu-bong and Mu Chong. At the same time, a school was established near Yan'an for training military and political leaders for a future independent Korea. By 1945, the KVA had grown to approximately 1,000 men, mostly Korean deserters from the Imperial Japanese Army. During this period, the KVA fought alongside the Chinese communist forces from which it drew its arms and ammunition. After the defeat of the Japanese, the KVA accompanied the Chinese communist forces into eastern Jilin, intending to gain recruits from ethnic Koreans in China, particularly from Yanbian, and then enter Korea.

Soviet Korean Units

Just after World War II and during the Soviet Union's occupation of the part of Korea north of the 38th Parallel, the Soviet 25th Army headquarters in Pyongyang issued a statement ordering all armed resistance groups in the northern part of the peninsula to disband on 12 October 1945. Two thousand Koreans with previous experience in the Soviet army were sent to various locations around the country to organise constabulary forces with permission from Soviet military headquarters, and the force was created on 21 October 1945.

Formation of National Army

The headquarters felt a need for a separate unit for security around railways, and the formation of the unit was announced on 11 January 1946. That unit was activated on 15 August of the same year to supervise existing security forces and creation of the national armed forces.

Military institutes such as the Pyongyang Academy (became No. 2 KPA Officers School in Jan. 1949) and the Central Constabulary Academy (became KPA Military Academy in Dec. 1948) soon followed for the education of political and military officers for the new armed forces.

After the military was organised and facilities to educate its new recruits were constructed, the Constabulary Discipline Corps was reorganised into the Korean People's Army General Headquarters. The previously semi-official units became military regulars with the distribution of Soviet uniforms, badges, and weapons that followed the inception of the headquarters.

The State Security Department, a forerunner to the Ministry of People's Defense, was created as part of the Interim People's Committee on 4 February 1948. The formal creation of the Korean People's Army was announced four days later on 8 February, the day after the Fourth Plenary Session of the People's Assembly approved the plan to separate the roles of the military and those of the police, seven months before the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was proclaimed on 9 September 1948. In addition, the Ministry of State for the People's Armed Forces was established, which controlled a central guard battalion, two divisions, and an independent mixed and combined arms brigade.

Conflicts and events

Before the outbreak of the Korean War, Joseph Stalin equipped the KPA with modern tanks, trucks, artillery, and small arms (at the time, the South Korean Army had nothing remotely comparable either in numbers of troops or equipment). During the opening phases of the Korean War in 1950, the KPA quickly drove South Korean forces south and captured Seoul, only to lose 70,000 of their 100,000-strong army in the autumn after U.S. amphibious landings at the Battle of Incheon and a subsequent drive to the Yalu River. On 4 November, China openly staged a military intervention. On 7 December, Kim Il-sung was deprived of the right of command of KPA by China.[16] The KPA subsequently played a secondary minor role to Chinese forces in the remainder of the conflict. By the time of the Armistice in 1953, the KPA had sustained 290,000 casualties and lost 90,000 men as POWs.

In 1953, the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) was able to oversee and enforce the terms of the armistice. The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC), made up of delegations from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland, carried out inspections to ensure implementation of the terms of the Armistice that prevented reinforcements or new weapons being brought into Korea.

Soviet thinking on the strategic scale was replaced since December 1962 with a people's war concept. The Soviet idea of direct warfare was replaced with a Maoist war of attrition strategy. Along with the mechanisation of some infantry units, more emphasis was put on light weapons, high-angle indirect fire, night fighting, and sea denial.

Service branches of North Korean Military

Photo: CNN
Photo: CNN

Ground Force

The Korean People's Army Ground Force (KPAGF; Korean: 조선인민군 륙군; Hanja: 朝鮮人民軍 陸軍) is the main branch of the Korean People's Army, responsible for land-based military operations.

The Korean People's Army Ground Force was formed on August 20, 1947. It outnumbered and outgunned the South Korean army on the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 before being pushed back by a combined United Nations-Republic of Korea counteroffensive. North Korean ground forces formations which fought in the Korean War included the I Corps, the II and III Corps. The IV Corps and V Corps, VI and VII Corps were formed after the outbreak of war. Divisions included the 105th Armored Division, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, 19th, and 43rd Infantry Divisions. During the Korean War, it also contained a number of independent units such as the 766th Infantry Regiment.

Naval Force

The Korean People's Army Naval Force (KPANF) is organized into two fleets (West Fleet and East Fleet, the latter being the larger of the two) which, owing to the limited range and general disrepair of their vessels, are not able to support each other, let alone meet for joint operations. The East Fleet is headquartered at T'oejo-dong and the West Fleet at Nampho. A number of training, shipbuilding and maintenance units and a naval air wing report directly to Naval Command Headquarters at Pyongyang.

Air and Anti-Air Force

The Korean People's Army Air and Anti-Air Force (KPAAF) is also responsible for North Korea's air defence forces through the use of anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles (SAM). While much of the equipment is outdated, the high saturation of multilayered, overlapping, mutually supporting air defence sites provides a formidable challenge to enemy air attacks.

Strategic Rocket Force

The Korean People's Army Strategic Rocket Force (KPASRF) is a major division of the KPA that controls North Korea's nuclear and conventional strategic missiles. It is mainly equipped with surface-to-surface missiles of Soviet and Chinese design, as well as locally developed long-range missiles.

Special Operation Force

The Korean People's Army Special Operation Force (KPASOF) is an asymmetric force with a total troop size of 200,000. Since the Korean War, it has continued to play a role of concentrating infiltration of troops into the territory of South Korea and conducting sabotage.

North Korean Weapons

The KPA possess a variety of Chinese and Soviet sourced equipment and weaponry, as well as locally produced versions and improvements of the former. Soldiers are mostly armed with indigenous Kalashnikov-type rifles as the standard issue weapon. Front line troops are issued the Type 88, while the older Type 58 assault rifle and Type 68A/B have been shifted to rear echelon or home guard units. A rifle of unknown nomenclature was seen during the 2017 Day of the Sun military parade, appearing to consist of a grenade launcher and a standard assault rifle, similar to the U.S OICW or South Korean S&T Daewoo K11. North Korea generally designates rifles as "Type XX", similar to the Chinese naming system. On 15 November 2018, North Korea successfully tested a "newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon". Leader Kim Jong-un observed the test at the Academy of Defense Science and called it a "decisive turn" in bolstering the combat power of the North Korean army.

There is a Korean People's Army Military Hardware Museum located in Pyongyang that displays a range of the equipment used.

Chemical weapons

The U.S. Department of Defense believes North Korea probably has a chemical weapons program and is likely to possess a stockpile of such weapons.

Nuclear capabilities

North Korea has tested a series of different missiles, including short-, medium-, intermediate-, and intercontinental- range, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Estimates of the country's nuclear stockpile vary: some experts believe Pyongyang has between fifteen and twenty nuclear weapons, while U.S. intelligence believes the number to be between thirty and sixty. The regime conducted two tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead in July 2017. The Pentagon confirmed North Korea's ICBM tests, and analysts estimate that the new missile has a potential range of 10,400 kilometres (6,500 mi) and, if fired on a flatter trajectory, could be capable of reaching mainland U.S. territory.

What missiles has North Korea tested?

Photo: Newsweek
Photo: Newsweek

North Korea has tested more than one hundred ballistic missiles with the ability to carry nuclear warheads, including short-, medium-, intermediate-, and intercontinental-range missiles and submarine-launched ones.

The regime successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), each capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead, in July and November 2017. Pyongyang said that in its November test of the Hwasong-15 ICBM, the missile hit an altitude of 4,475 kilometers (2,780 miles), far above the International Space Station, and flew about 1,000 kilometers (590 miles) before landing in the sea off Japan’s coast. Analysts estimate the Hwasong-15 has a potential range of 13,000 kilometers (8,100 miles) and, if fired on a flatter trajectory, could reach anywhere on the U.S. mainland. American analysts and experts from other countries still debate the nuclear payload that North Korea’s ICBMs could carry, and it is still unclear whether the ICBMs have the capability to survive reentry. A confidential U.S. intelligence assessment from 2017 reportedly concluded that North Korea had developed the technology to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit its ballistic missiles.

Kim halted missile testing in late 2017 amid a thawing of relations with the United States and South Korea. But North Korea resumed testing in mid-2019, months after negotiations between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, broke down. Later that year, Pyongyang conducted an underwater launch of a ballistic missile, its first such test in three years.

Since then, North Korea has unveiled several new ballistic missiles. The first, shown during an October 2020 military parade, was an ICBM larger than the Hwasong-15. It has not been named or tested, but analysts say it could potentially carry multiple nuclear warheads or decoys to confuse missile defense systems. A new Pukkuksong-4 submarine-launched ballistic missile was also displayed in October 2020, and its successor, Pukkuksong-5, was unveiled in January 2021. Experts estimate the Pukkuksong-5 has a range of around 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles), which would allow it to strike Guam. Experts say neither missile has been tested yet.

In 2021, Pyongyang tested short-range ballistic missiles that are solid fueled, advancing a technology that makes missiles easier to transport and faster to launch. In addition, it tested a more maneuverable long-range cruise missile, which can frustrate missile defense systems if launched in tandem with ballistic missiles. In September, North Korea for the first time test-fired missiles from a railcar launcher, which makes them less detectable by the United States and its allies.

There remain significant unknowns surrounding the accuracy of North Korea’s ballistic missiles. Observers have said that these missiles are usually inaccurate because of their reliance on early guidance systems acquired from the Soviet Union. However, some defectors and experts say North Korea has begun using GPS guidance, similar to that of China’s navigation system, raising questions about the provenance of the system and whether North Korea’s arsenal of missiles is more accurate and reliable than previously believed.

Military power of USA & North Korea

Military expenditures

small flag US US small flag KP KP
Military budget: 738 billion $ 1.3 billion $
Percent of GDP: 3.42% 4.9%

Manpower

small flag US US small flag KP KP
Active personnel: 1,385,727 1,280,000
Reserve personnel: 849,450 600,000
Available for military: 73,270,043 6,515,279

Land Forces

small flag US US small flag KP KP
Tanks: 6,612 6,000
Armoured fighting vehicles: 41,237 4,000
Total artillery: 4,243 13,000
Self-propelled artillery: 1,498 4,500
Rocket artillery: 1,366 5,000

Air Forces

small flag US US small flag KP KP
Total aircraft: 12,930 906
Fighter aircraft: 461 349
Multirole aircraf: 2,417 35
Attack aircraft: 566 154
Helicopters: 4,741 202
UCAV (combat drone): 334 0

Navy

small flag US US small flag KP KP
Total naval: 460 525
Aircraftcarriers: 20 0
Destroyers: 94 0
Frigates: 0 6
Corvettes: 22 6
Submarines: 69 75

Nuclear weapons

USA

The first country to develop and to military use nuclear warheads in the world. Everything started from the Manhattan project, a research that had one particular goal in focus – to develop and produce the first nuclear weapon. Americans were the first to wield such powerful weapon. Everything started in 1941, which is date of the beginning of Manhattan project. Since the end of the Second World War, United States became the leading country when it comes to possessing nuclear warheads and it lasted approximately to 1980s. We should also bear in mind that United States are also the only nation that ever used nuclear weapon in military conflict.

In 1960, the amount of warheads stored by Americans exceeded 30,000. However, it is worth to note that throughout the entire period of the so-called Cold War, USA managed to build approximately 70,000 nuclear warheads, what is more than all other countries with access to nuclear weapons combined. From the first test that happened in 1945 to this day, the USA conducted 1054 tests of atomic bombs. Still, as a result of introduced restrictions on the amount of warheads one state can possess, the current number has dropped to 6500 warheads. Noteworthy is also the fact that out of this number, United States deployed only 1600.

North Korea

Although at the beginning North Korea joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, they withdrew from it on January 2003. It was a consequence of the United States accusation. The USA government claimed that North Korea was unofficially funding a program of uranium enrichment. Because of that, they cancelled the 1994 Agreed Framework treaty and cut off the energy assistance. Two years after withdrawing, the officials from North Korea claimed that they own operational nuclear arsenal. In spite of North Koreans assurances, the United States did not believe that North Korea really posses such weapons. As a result, the government of North Korea decided to conduct tests.

There were three tests that North Korea initially conducted. The first one, with the yield of less than a kiloton, took place in 2006. However, to show that this was in fact a nuclear detonation, North Koreans conducted second and third tests, respectable in 2009 and 2013. The maximum power of the blast of the aforementioned tests can be estimated to be up to 40 kilotons. However, a lot of sources claim that yield did not surpass 10-15 kilotons. Noteworthy is also the fact that in 2016, North Korea announced that they have conducted their first hydrogen-bomb test.

Military service

USA

18 years of age (17 years of age with parental consent) for male and female voluntary service; no conscription; maximum enlistment age 42 (Army), 27 (Air Force), 34 (Navy), 28 (Marines); service obligation 8 years, including 2-5 years active duty (Army), 2 years active (Navy), 4 years active (Air Force, Marines); DoD is eliminating prohibitions restricting women from assignments in units smaller than brigades or near combat units.

North Korea

18 is presumed to be the legal minimum age for compulsory military service; 16-17 is the presumed legal minimum age for voluntary service.

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