The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, (DPRK, or North Korea) is the most militarized country in the world according to the Strategic Studies Institute, a research arm of the U.S. Army War College. Even though it has a population of only 25.7 million people it has the fourth largest army in the world after China, the United States, and India. Kim Jong Un is the leader of the National Defense Commission, which controls the military and promotes “military first” politics to such a degree that the military dominates political and economic life. Generals are kept under close for surveillance so they don’t present a threat.

The North Korea’s military was founded in 1935 and is older than North Korea itself. It began as an anti-Japanese militia and is now the heart of the nation’s “military first” policy. Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post: “With 1.19 million troops on active duty, about 5 percent of the country's population is in uniform — compared with about 0.5 percent in the United States. Conscription is universal; men serve 10 years and women seven. An additional 4.7 million people serve in the army reserve for much of their adult lives. The government devotes about a third of its budget to military spending, according to South Korean and Western estimates. The United States allocates 4 to 5 percent of government spending to the military. The army is also front-loaded for war, with more than 70 percent of its fighting forces and firepower positioned within 60 miles of the border that separates the two Koreas. [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, November 3, 2009]

Military and security forces: Korean People's Army (KPA) is comprised of the 1) KPA Ground Forces, 2) KPA Navy, 3) KPA Air Force (includes air defense) and 4) KPA Strategic Forces (missile forces). The Security Guard Command protects the Kim family, other senior leadership figures, and government facilities). The Ministry of Public Security has jurisdiction over border Guards, civil security forces (2021). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021 =]

Military expenditures: in 2019, it was assessed that North Korea spent between 22 percent and 24 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP, between US$3.7 billion and US$4.2 billion in 2017 dollars) annually on the military between 2007 and 2017. In comparison defense spending as a percent of GDP is 5.62 percent in Israel, 3.2 percent in the United States and 0.4 percent in Ghana).=

Military equipment inventories and acquisitions: the KPA is equipped mostly with older weapon systems originally acquired from the former Soviet Union, Russia, and China; North Korea manufactures copies and provides some upgrades to these weapon systems; it also has a robust domestic ballistic missile program based largely on missiles acquired from the former Soviet Union; since 2010, there were no publicly-reported transfers of weapons to North Korea; between 2000 and 2010, Russia was the only recorded provider of arms (2020)

North Korea's confrontational relationship with the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) is one of the last legacies of the Cold War. The Korean peninsula remains divided, with two large armies tactically deployed forward along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that is demilitarized in name only. Ian Vandaelle wrote in the National Post: “ The pre-eminence of the military is largely the result of” a “strategy that uses threats of invasion and unprovoked attacks to influence foreign relations and extract foreign aid. Much of the forces are concentrated along the heavily fortified DMZ. [Source: Ian Vandaelle, National Post, December 20, 2011; [Source: Library of Congress, June 1993]

Military Personnel of North Korea

North Korea used to have more people in the military than any other country based on percentage of the population or labor force. Now it is second to Eritrea. North Korean armed forces personnel (percentage of total labor force): 8.9 percent (compared to 2.1 percent in South Korea, 12.4 percent in Eritrea, 4.3 percent in Israel and .8 percent in the United States). [Source: World Bank ]

Military and security service personnel strengths: assessments of the size of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) vary widely. It is widely believed there are approximately 1.1 million to 1.2 million active troops (950,000-1.0 million in the Army; 110-120,000 in the Air Force; 60,000 in the Navy; 10,000 in the Strategic Missile Forces); There are an addition 200,000 in Public Security forces (2020) =

Number of people in the military (active): 1,280,000 (compared 74,200 in Argentina, 1,358,193 in the United States, 0 in Costa Rica, and 2,035,000 in China). North Korea: reserve: 600,000; paramilitary: 5,889,000; total: 7,769,000; per 1000 capita total: 306.1 per 1000 capita active: 50.4 [Source: Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Population in military: 5.8 percent (2005, compared to .73 percent in the United States). Largest armed forces as percentage of population: 1) North Korea; 2) Eritrea with 4.6 percent; and Singapore with 3.8 percent. [Source: Nationmaster, 2005]

Military service age and obligation: 17 years of age for compulsory male and female military service.The service obligation is 10 years for men, to age 23 for women. The service obligation was reportedly reduced in 2021 to 8 years for men and 5 years for women (2021). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

It was estimated that one out of every five North Korean men between the ages of sixteen and fifty-four was in the military in 1992. The active-duty forces account for at least 6 percent of the population and at least 12 percent of the male population. These capabilities far exceed any conceivable defensive requirement. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Defense Spending in North Korea

Military expenditures: in 2019, it was assessed that North Korea spent between 22 percent and 24 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP, between US$3.7 billion and US$4.2 billion in 2017 dollars) annually on the military between 2007 and 2017. In comparison defense spending as a percent of GDP is 5.62 percent in Israel, 3.2 percent in the United States and 0.4 percent in Ghana.. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021]

The North Korean government has said that about 15 percent of the country's budget is spent on the military. Some experts have estimated the true figure could up to 40 percent. In 2003, the North Korean government announced that its military expenditures were US$1.7 billion, or about 15.7 percent of the total government budget. However, the South Korean government believed that the true figure was more likely around US$5 billion, representing 27.2 percent of GDP and 44.4 percent of the total government budget. Highest military spending (percentage of GDP in 1996): 1) North Korea (27.2 percent); 2) Oman (15.6 percent); 3) Kuwait (12.9 percent). The military budget of North Korea in 2002 was estimated to be US$5.12 billion compared to US$11.8 billion in South Korea and US$3 billion by U.S. forces in South Korea.

North Korea Spends Quarter of GDP on Military from 2002-2014

North Korea ranked No. 1 in the world for military expenditures relative to GDP between 2004 and 2014, spending nearly a quarter of its GDP on the armed forces. According to the “State Department's World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 2016" report, the North's military expenditures averaged about US$3.5 billion a year. That accounts for 23.3 percent of the country's average GDP of US$15 billion during the period. [Source: Yonhap, December 23, 2016]

Yonhap reported: “Oman was a distant second on the list, spending 11.4 percent of its GDP on the military, followed by Saudi Arabia with 8.6 percent, South Sudan with 8.4 percent and the African nation of Eritrea with 6.9 percent, according to the report. South Korea spent about 2.6 percent of its GDP on the military, the 47th largest in the world, while Japan was in 136th place by spending an average 1 percent of its GDP on the military during the period, according to the report. In absolute terms, however, the North's annual military spending during the period ranked only 46th in the world, while South Korea's ranked 11th, spending an average US$30 billion. The U.S. was by far the world's No. 1 with US$701 billion a year on average, way ahead of runner-up China's US$114 billion.

“North Korea's 2012 military spending came to US$4.17 billion, while South Korea's expenditures totaled US$39.3 billion, according to the report. North Korea ranked 31st on the list” of arms exporters, with about US$100 million of annual arms exports. But Pyongyang's arms exports accounted for 6.6 percent of its total exports, making the country the No. 1 in terms of the proportion of weapons to total exports, the report showed.

The story was much the same in the State Department's “World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 2015". North Korean military expenditures averaged about US$4 billion a year between 2002 and 2012, accounting for 23.8 percent of the country's average GDP of US$17 billion during the period. The Korea Times reported: North Korea's 2012 military spending came to US$3.85 billion, while South Korea's expenditures totaled US$31.9 billion, according to the report. North Korea also ranked first in the number of troops relative to population, with 1.17 million troops. The number also represented the third largest after China's 2.21 million and the United States' 1.41 million. South Korea ranked seventh with 679,000 troops. North Korea ranked 27th on the list, with US$100 million of annual arms exports. But Pyongyang's arms exports accounted for 10.2 percent of its total exports, making the country the No. 1 in terms of the proportion of weapons to total exports. [Source: Korea Times, January 4, 2016]

North Korea’s Military Relations with China and the Soviet Union

Pyongyang's relations with Beijing and Moscow have changed significantly over time as the result of the changing domestic environment, emerging disparities in the strategic interests of the three countries, and key events such as the Sino-Soviet split, the collapse of communism, and the replacement of the Soviet Union with Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (see China and the Soviet Union). Data on Chinese and Soviet arms transfers to North Korea are scarce and unreliable. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

General trends in post-Korean War assistance can be grouped into six phases. During the first period (1953-56), the Soviet Union supplied assistance unilaterally, and China maintained troops in North Korea. In the second period (1957-60), Soviet deStalinization measures led to tension in Soviet-North Korean relations (see Foreign Policy). As China pulled its troops out of Korea, however, it increased military assistance. During the third phase (1961-64, the beginning of the Sino-Soviet split), both China and the Soviet Union gave little assistance. The fourth period (1965-72) was characterized by renewed Soviet assistance and a drop in Chinese assistance. In the fifth period (1973-84), China's support for North Korea increased steadily while the delivery of major equipment from the Soviet Union declined significantly. In the sixth period (1984-89), especially after Kim Il Sung's visit to Moscow in May 1984, Soviet military assistance to North Korea grew dramatically as Chinese military assistance declined. The Soviet Union supplied North Korea with major weapons systems, including late-model jet aircraft, SA-2D, SA-3, and SA-5 SAM systems, and significant support equipment. Cooperation intensified in other military areas. There were yearly joint naval and air force exercises from 1986 to 1990, exchanges of high-ranking military personnel, reciprocal aircraft and warship visits, and exchanges of military intelligence. North Korea permits overflights by Soviet reconnaissance planes and bombers, and grants warships access to ports.*

The economic and political reforms taking place in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989 produced a shift in relations with North Korea. Naval exercises with the Soviet Union were stopped in 1990. As of mid-1993, North Korea's security relations with the CIS and Russia were in flux. North Korea's military relations with Russia have cooled considerably, although there are indications that both countries are attempting to reestablish relations on a pragmatic basis. Press accounts indicate that Russia has assumed its treaty obligations with North Korea. In March 1992, the CIS chief of staff General Viktor Samonov visited North Korea and signed an "annual plan for the exchange of manpower" and an agreement on mutual cooperation. General Samonov indicated that CIS military logistic support is being supplied on a commercial basis and that North Korea is having difficulty meeting the payments.*

Pyongyang supported Beijing's response to the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. By the early 1990s, Chinese-North Korean relations had grown warmer, although cooperation apparently has not involved the transfers of major weapons systems. China's relations with South Korea do not appear to negatively affect its relations with North Korea.*

Military-First Policy of North Korea

Despite it scarce resources, North Korea has maintained a “military first” policy since the 1990s in which the power of the North Korean leader has been rooted in his control of the military based in part on the policy that food and other resources have gone first to the military. The main ideologue of the 'military first' policy was Kim Jong Il

Alexander V. Vorontsov of the Brooking Institute wrote: “The “Songun Chongch’i” or military-first politics mantra adopted by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as a guideline for domestic governance and foreign policy has elicited mostly negative responses from Korea-watchers. Many view songun as the final phase in the deterioration of North Korea and a serious threat to neighboring states saying that an impoverished country of 24 million inhabitants supporting a military of more than 1 million soldiers is incapable of modernization and economic reform. They argue that greater military participation in politics creates a dual-pronged threat: the army may appropriate a greater share of already-dwindling state funds to increase its readiness and effectiveness; and the generals, supposedly the most militant sector of the policy-making structure, will have a louder voice in foreign policy formulation, which could lead to hostile rhetoric towards South Korea. [Source: Alexander V. Vorontsov, Brooking Institute, May 26, 2006]

“A less alarmist interpretation of military-first politics is that Kim Jong-il is trying to maintain the existing order, to strengthen his regime based on personal authority, and consolidate control of military forces with the goal of preventing an overthrow of the state. So, is military authority a curse or a blessing? The lessons from history are ambiguous, as states ruled by the military have experienced both prosperity and hardship.

“The implementation of songun in the mid-1990s increased the role of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) in daily life. The army began to participate even more in social and economic decision-making, from large-scale infrastructure development to providing its own food. While military personnel are required to serve for ten years, they spend most of their service participating in different areas of the country’s socio-economic life. Thus, the army is now not as heavy economic burden, and is serves as an important resource and catalyst for developing the national economy. The movement to the military-first policy has accompanied a gradual transformation of North Korea’s planned economy to the direction of a mixed economy.

“With songun also come changes in ideology. This change and its underlying goal of building a powerful and prosperous state – “kangsong taeguk,” are justified by flexible and creative interpretations of the bedrock ideal of self-reliance – “juche,” a nationalist ideology developed by revolutionary leader Kim Il-sung. The songun concept replaces the proletariat and the vanguard Communist Party with the army as the driving force in society. This innovation is significant because the army is typically a less ideological and more pragmatic institution than the Party.

Meaning of the Military First Policy

Robert Marquand wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “ Military First started as a campaign to support juche, and as a slogan designed to remind Koreans that the nation is at war. It came packaged with a rallying cry called "dare to die," say refugees and Kim experts. (There's a dare-to-die pop song, and a dare-to-die movie. Recent internal memos brought by defectors indicate "dare to die" is urged on local officials due to a feeling in Pyongyang that young people aren't showing enough zeal to make such a dare.) [Source: Robert Marquand, Christian Science Monitor, January 3, 2007]

“Yet Military First may now be a tool for evolving a significant structural change — a new ruling elite in day-to-day affairs. For years, the North Korean state was ruled by the workers' party. Under Kim Il Sung, the party was the driving force in Korea — the main route to achievement and pay. Everyone wanted to join. (Party members in China and Vietnam are 5 percent of the population; a 1998 Korean Central report put Korea's membership at 5 million, or 22 percent, though it may be lower.)

“"The outcome of the Military First policy replaces the workers as a main force," says Haiksoon Paik, a North Korean specialist at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul. "North Korea's party has not been functioning as well as it is supposed to ... several positions in the Politburo have not been reappointed. Kim is not depending on the party, but a smaller, more streamlined military apparatus. This is due to his politics as a result of the nuclear crisis brought by the Americans." "Military First is not aimed at building up the military, which is already quite built up and strong," says Lee, whose dissertation is titled, "A Political Economic Analysis of the North Korean Regime." "It is about replacing the old party — First Rice — structure of senior Kim. If the party is unwieldy, the military will control the people on behalf of the leader."

North Korea Discharges Soldiers Amid Wider Military Downsize

In 2015, North Korea’s military discharged a large number of soldiers according to sources inside the country, amid reports a drastic reduction in North Korea’s army. Radio Free Asia reported: “A source in Yanggang province, along the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service that the majority of soldiers from the region had been sent home as part of a wider downscale of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) between June 5 and July 10 this year. “The majority of soldiers from Yanggang province have returned home since early June,” the source said. The source cited recently discharged soldiers as saying that many more members of the armed forces will be removed from service after the regional elections are over. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 20, 2015]

While only infantry troops were discharged between June and July, those to be released following the polls will consist of only soldiers over the age of 30 on rear supply and construction details, such as members of sapper (engineer) units and Bureau 8, which serves under the North Korean police. No technicians or specialists will be discharged from the military, the source added.

“A soldier from North Hamgyong province who returned home in recent days told RFA that the new bid to reduce the size of North Korea’s military was unprecedented during the rule of Kim Jong Un, who assumed power in 2012. Since 2012, the regime had even stopped discharging 27-year-old men who had completed their minimum 10 years of military service after graduating from high school, he said.

“While this policy had confused military commanders about the length of service, the soldier said the recent decision to discharge soldiers over the age of 30 had confirmed that the required term had at least been extended to 13 years.

Kim Jong Un has repeatedly stated his intention to “reunify North and South Korea by force by 2015,” and recently ordered stricter regulations for physical examinations required to serve in the armed forces during a military lecture, the soldier said, in the interest of strengthening the KPA. The soldier said that, despite lengthening of the required term of military service, the size of North Korea’s armed forces is destined to decrease because few people born during the 1994-98 “Great Famine,” and who are now of serving age, will be able to pass the KPA physical examination.

National Security Policy Formulation of North Korea in the 1990s

As of mid-1993, North Korea had no open forum for propounding official views on military doctrine and strategy. Interpretation and discussion of North Korean military doctrine rely upon analysis of speeches by high ranking military officers or detectable changes in military organization, structure, and equipment. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The seemingly complex national security policy-making process was tempered by three factors: interlocking memberships in party and government apparatus, the relative unimportance of the state apparatus in decision making, and the state's relegation to implementing policies decided by the party structure. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

In general, the party, typically the General Political Bureau and the Military Affairs Committee, has broad policy-making responsibility for military affairs. Within the government, however, the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces controls the military. The General Staff Department and the General Rear Services Bureau of the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces prepare military budgets under the guidance of the Political Bureau and Military Affairs Committee. Proposed budgets are approved by the KWP Military Affairs Committee and passed into law by the essentially rubber stamp legislature, the Supreme People's Assembly (see Organization of the Government).*

North Korean Military Command

It has been said that in North Korea, the military has the ultimate say in decision making but is hard to determine the degree of the power exercised by the military. The armed forces are under the direction and control of the North Korean leader, who is supreme commander of the KPA with the title of grand marshal, general secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), and chairman of the state National Defense Commission. The KWP Military Affairs Committee and the National Defense Commission hold coordinated authority over the armed forces. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

On November 23, 1992, the South Korean government released the text of the revised North Korean state constitution, which had been approved, but not made public, by the Ninth Supreme People's Assembly on April 9, 1992. The document revises the structure of the national command authority. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The North Korean People's Army (KPA) is a creation of both the government and the KWP (Korean Worker’s Party), the ruling political part of North Korea According to Chapter 7, Article 46 of the KWP constitution, "The Korean People's Army is the revolutionary armed forces of the Korean Workers' Party." The 1992 state constitution groups clauses related to national defense into two sections. Those defining the role and mission of the armed forces are under the subheading entitled National Defense — Chapter 4, Article 58 through Article 62. The text redefining the relationships between the president, Supreme People's Assembly, and National Defense Commission is under the subheading on State Institutions — Chapter 6, Article 111 through Article 114. The duality of the KPA's role is indicated in Article 59, which states, "The mission of the Armed Forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is to defend the interests of the working people, defend the socialist system and the gains of the revolution from external invasion, and protect the freedom, independence and peace of the fatherland." The dual nature of the KPA as the "army of the Party" and of the state is reflected in the national military command structure.*

Under previous constitutions, the president was empowered as the supreme commander of the armed forces and as chairman of the National Defense Commission. At the Seventh Supreme People's Assembly on April 5, 1982, the Ministry of People's Armed Forces (along with the Ministry of Public Security and the State Inspection Commission) was separated from the State Administration Council and made responsible to the president alone. On December 24, 1991, however, the constitutional and legal requirements were muddied when it was announced that President Kim's son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Il, had been named supreme commander. The 1992 state constitution, however, deletes clauses in the 1972 constitution that stipulated that the president was supreme commander of the armed forces and chairman of the National Defense Commission, shifting powers instead to the Supreme People's Assembly and the National Defense Commission. Under the revisions, the president retains only the power to recommend the election or recall of the chairman of the National Defense Commission.*

Structure of the North Korean Military Command

Under the coordinated authority of the party's Military Affairs Committee and the state National Defense Commission, both chaired by President Kim Il Sung, the Ministry of People's Armed Forces exercises jurisdiction over the KPA. Eight major organizations constitute the national command authorities: the president; the KWP's Military Affairs Committee; the Civil Defense Department; the Military Affairs Department; the Supreme People's Assembly; the National Defense Commission with special emphasis on its chairman; the Ministry of People's Armed Forces; and the General Political Bureau of the General Staff. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The KWP Military Affairs Committee determines broad security policy, including basic military policy, political indoctrination of the armed services, resource allocation, and high-level personnel matters. The committee has under its jurisdiction both the regular and paramilitary forces. The Military Affairs Committee consists of between ten and twenty party officials, typically military officers. In mid-1993 Kim Il Sung, as general secretary of the KWP, headed the committee, and Kim Jong Il was second in command.*

The Ministry of People's Armed Forces is organizationally subordinate to the state structure but is controlled by the KWP. The ministry is responsible for management and operational control of the armed forces. Prior to 1992, it was under the direct control of the president, with guidance from the National Defense Commission and the KWP Military Affairs Department. The 1992 state constitution shifts its control to the National Defense Commission.*

The Ministry of People's Armed Forces has three principal departments. The General Staff Department exercises operational control over the military. The General Political Bureau guides and supervises party organizations and political activities at all levels of the ministry under direction of the party's Military Affairs Committee. The General Rear Services Bureau controls logistics, support, and procurement activities. Other bureaus include the Military Tribunal Bureau and the Prosecutors' Bureau.*

Major operational forces include all corps, the Light Infantry Training Guidance Bureau (formerly called the VIII Special Warfare Corps or the Special Forces Corps), the Reconnaissance Bureau, the navy, the air force, the Air Defense Command, and some combat support units. The Artillery Command, the Armor Command, and some twenty-six bureaus, two departments, and two offices are responsible for doctrine, administration, logistics, and training for functional areas, including the field artillery, air defense artillery, armor, mechanized infantry, ordnance, and chemical warfare. Corps-level commands in peacetime are directly commanded by the General Staff Department.*

National Defense Commission of the North Korean Military

Under the 1992 constitution, the Supreme People's Assembly gained the power to elect or to recall the authority of the chairman of the National Defense Commission on the recommendation of the president. On the recommendation of the commission chairman, it has election and recall authority over the first vice chairman, the vice chairman, and members of the commission. According to Article 91.20, it also retains ultimate power to "decide on questions conceding war and peace." [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The 1992 constitution appears to continue a trend of increasing the importance and independence of the National Defense Commission. Links to the Central People's Committee were apparently severed and the commission became directly subordinate to the Supreme People's Assembly. Article 111 states "The National Defense Commission is the supreme military guidance organ of the DPRK sovereign power," and Article 113 declares, "The Chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission commands and controls all the armed forces." Under Article 114, the commission has the power to declare a state of war and issue mobilization orders in an emergency, guide the armed forces, appoint and dismiss major military cadres, and control general officer promotions. *

These sweeping changes are apparently aimed at laying the groundwork for readdressing the apparent violation of the constitution when Kim Jong Il was installed as supreme commander of the army in December 1991. Although the commission's position in the state was enhanced, observers believe that, in reality, it adopted and implemented policies based on the KWP's Military Affairs Committee guidelines. The National Defense Commission has a chairman, first vice chairman, one or more additional vice chairman, and between nine and fifteen members inclusive, usually all military officers. In mid-1993 Kim Il Sung was chairman and Kim Jong Il first vice chairman.*

Role of the Military in North Korean Life

The United States Department of Defense estimated that North Korea had a million troops under arms for most of the 1980s, although Pyongyang regularly claimed that it maintained its armed forces at around 400,000 persons. Given the closed nature of North Korean society, there was little publicly available evidence to validate either claim until the research conducted in 1991 by Nicholas Eberstadt and Judith Banister at the Harvard University Center for Population and Development Studies. Their estimates, derived from DPRK population data given to the UN, suggest that the number of males in the North Korean armed forces had increased from at least 740,000 in 1975 to over 900,000 in 1980 and 1.2 million in 1986. The estimates also suggest that more than one out of every five North Korean men between the ages of sixteen and fifty-four was in the military as of 1986. If all military men are of the ages conscripts were thought to serve, that is, ages seventeen to twenty-six, they would constitute almost half the age group. The armed forces would have accounted for at least 12 percent of the entire male population and at least 6 percent of the total population. As a result of estimated decreases in that age group over the 1990s, the same size military force will constitute 59 percent of the conscript age group in the year 2000, and 57 percent in 2005. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Although difficult to quantify, the economic consequences of such a massive military establishment are staggering. North Korea's published budget figures, however, are of little use in estimating the impact of the massive military buildup. Many analysts dismiss North Korea's military budget figures completely, while others assume that significant costs related to defense expenditures are hidden under nondefense budget headings. Most estimates put the total for military expenditures in the range of 20 to 25 percent of the gross national product (GNP).*

Military personnel sometimes are assigned to civilian duty. For example, troops may be assigned to factories to alleviate labor shortages. Training seldom is held during planting or harvesting seasons to allow troops to assist farmers. Much of the construction of major infrastructure projects is completed by military engineering units or regular military personnel mobilized in support of special projects. Military-associated construction since the 1950s includes such diverse projects as the Namhng chemical complex, the Sunchin synthetic fiber complexes, the Pyongyang-Wnsan and Pyongyang-Kaesng expressways, the sports complexes for the games of the Thirteenth World Festival of Youth and Students, various barrages and lockgates, the Taech'n power station, the 800-kilometer west coast waterway project, coal mines, cement factories, public housing and government buildings, tramways, and dams.*

The number of troops used for construction projects at any one time is unknown. During the 1980s, however, construction became nearly a full-time activity for selected units as result of civilian labor shortages. In 1986 North Korea announced that some 150,000 troops had been transferred to domestic construction projects. A 1987 announcement indicated that 100,000 troops were active in civilian construction projects. These troops were not discharged, and some were merely assigned to the projects. Other troops may have been reassigned to engineering bureaus while they participated in various projects.*

At no time did reassignment to construction work represent a real reduction in military strength. However, it undoubtedly had a negative impact on military readiness and capability. Basic individual skills were maintained, but large unit training was more likely to deteriorate.*

Relations Between the North Korean Military and the Korean Workers' Party

Over the years, Kim Il Sung and the political leadership clearly paid close attention to the military's political role. The military's participation in politics has been co-opted in rough proportion to the share of the country's resources it commands. The military has a dual command structure, and the party has its own organization in the military separate from the Ministry of People's Armed Forces. The senior military leadership is part of the political elite. However, disputes over policy direction and poor performance assessments by the party leadership periodically result in purges of senior military leaders. Because the causes of intrafactional struggles are policy oriented, the impact of these purges on party-military relations is both limited and temporary, and it is not uncommon for purged individuals to return to positions of responsibility. Since the 1960s, relations between the KWP and KPA have been highly cooperative and seem to reflect a stable party control system within the military. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Since 1948 the party work and political control system in the KPA has changed dramatically. At that time, the KWP had neither a separate organization dedicated to military affairs nor an organization in the KPA. During the Korean War, a party structure was introduced in order to strengthen ideological indoctrination. After the purges of the late 1950s, the control system was intensified by the creation of the army-party committee system.*

In 1969 the party work system was strengthened and centralized with the adoption of a political officer system supervised by the Secretariat of the Central Committee. Since the adoption of the system, all orders and directives of commanders have required the signature of a political officer. In addition, the activities of political cadres are reported on by the Organization and Guidance Department of the party Central Committee. The political department and party committee reports are submitted through separate channels to the party Secretariat. The Socialist Working Youth League (SWYL) manages nonparty members under party leadership. Above the battalion level, there are Socialist Working Youth League committees. Under the leadership of the political department, there are youth league elements down to the platoon level.*

In mid-1993 the KPA and the KWP had overlapping memberships, which strengthened the party's role in the military. With the exceptions of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, all members of the KWP Military Affairs Committee selected at the Sixth Party Congress in 1980 are active-duty military. Ten of the members also are members of the General Political Bureau. Military representation in the General Political Bureau and the Central Committee is considerable. The average rate of military participation on the Central Committee is 21 percent, ranging from a low of 17 percent in 1948, to a high of 23 percent in 1970. There was 19 percent of participation at the 1980 Sixth Party Congress, the most recent congress. The turnover rate of the military in the two committees is lower than that of civilians.*

All officers are members of the KWP. Military duty is one of the most common ways of gaining party membership, and approximately 20 to 25 percent of the military are party members. The membership rates of key forward-deployed units may have been as high as 60 to 70 percent.*

The party has dual access into the military: directly through the committee system and indirectly through the KWP Secretariat and political officer system. In effect, the military is allowed its own party organization, but that party organization is supervised through the KWP Secretariat. Theoretically, there is a clear functional separation between the commanding and political officers. The unit commander is responsible for all administrative and military matters while the political officer executes party policies.*

Units have political officers down to the company level. Within platoons, political activities are handled by the assistant platoon leader. The tasks of the political officer are twofold: propaganda and organizational work. The political officer is responsible for all ideological training for the unit, selects the party committee, and runs all political meetings of the military units. The power of political officers derives from their ability to attend and comment on all staff meetings, to subject the commander to political criticism, to influence promotions, to inspect units, and to countersign the unit commander's orders.*

Purging of the North Korean Army

Radio Free Asia reported: In February 2014, sources told RFA that North Korea was purging its military officer corps of personnel linked to Kim Jong Un’s executed uncle Jang Song Thaek, in a massive shake-up that had led to a freeze on military exercises and delayed replacement of cadres in the ruling party but raised promotion prospects for younger officers. [Source: Radio Free Asia, June 17, 2015]

Jang, 67, who was the de facto number-two leader, was executed in December 2013, after being accused of plotting to overthrow the hard-line communist regime. The young Kim is moving to remove all those linked to his uncle, who was considered instrumental in his rise to power in December 2011.

Army Unit Charged with Guarding Kim Il Sung Statues Disbanded

In 2015, Radio Free Asia reported: “North Korea has disbanded an elite anti-aircraft artillery unit tasked with guarding statues of the nation’s founder Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il based on concerns over the safety of the founder's grandson and current regime leader Kim Jong Un, according to sources inside the country. The artillery company assigned to protect the two statues was disbanded in March, 2015 this year,” a source in Yanggang province told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity, adding that the unit was Company 9 of the 82nd Regiment under the 10th Corps of the North Korean People’s Army, stationed in Hyesan city. [Source: Radio Free Asia, June 17, 2015]

“The unit was broken up because the nine 14.5-millimeter machine guns it had maintained since 1989 to defend Kim’s statue and other historic sites in Hyesan’s Bocheon district were placed in sensitive locations along the city’s “1st Roadway,” he said, referring to a route used only by the Kim family. The source noted that authorities had torn down a munitions plant located near Wangduk train station, which was used exclusively at the time by Kim Il Sung’s son and successor Kim Jong Il to access Hyesan by rail, amid concerns for his safety following a train explosion in North Pyongan province in 2004.

“However, Company 9 remained intact throughout Kim Jong Il’s leadership, the source said, suggesting that his son Kim Jong Un, who assumed power following his father’s death from a heart attack in December 2011, “doesn’t fully trust the military.”

A second source in Yanggang, who also declined to provide his name, confirmed that Company 9 had been disbanded, but said the outfit’s soldiers would continue their duties of protecting statues and historical sites after handing over their artillery. “Company 9 shut down its ammunition depot in March … Their machine guns are now being held in the arsenal of the Bocheon Paramilitary Training Unit’s 3rd Battalion under the 10th Corps,” he said.

“The artillery company was disbanded, but its role has been maintained, while its machine guns were handed from active soldiers to those in paramilitary training,” who use them during exercises, he added. According to the source, North Koreans have been mocking the authorities for dismissing Company 9 by saying “the legacy of the dead leader can be destroyed, as long as Kim Jong Un’s safety is guaranteed.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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