The juche ideology's emphasis on a self-sufficient state also extends to military industry and sustainability. The Four Military Guidelines calls for a military force capable of operating for an extended period without external support or intervention. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

For its level of technological and economic development, North Korea has developed an impressive military-industrial complex and is nearly self-sufficient in military production. However, because overall technological levels are low, the military is incapable of producing aircraft, sophisticated radars, or electronic equipment. But Pyongyang has been successful when it assigns priority resources to specific projects.*

North Korea is believed to have stockpiled enough ammunition, food, and petroleum, oil, and lubricants in hardened, underground facilities to sustain combat for several months without outside aid. According to Seoul, by 1989 Pyongyang had stockpiled some 990,000 tons of ammunition — an amount sufficient for four months of combat. It is also believed that despite food and energy shortages in the late 1980s and early 1990s, North Korea maintains significant national stockpiles for emergency military use.*

Much of North Korea's resources are diverted into the military to maintains its survival and the survival ofiots leaders. The armed services control their own factories, stores and overseas trading arms, which are not accountable to civilian authorities. It is has been North Korea's expenditure severely hold backs the country’s economy. Many people spend their prime working years in their 20s and 30s the army in order to obtain access to higher education through the army's recommendation after several years' service. Lines between civilian and military activities are often unclear. Banners in urging workers to do "Speed Work" were replaced by one this read "Speed Battle" and "Battle at Missile Speed."

A report in the Washington Post in 2010 said that the military has recently "grabbed nearly complete command of the nation's state-run economy," taking over sale of raw materials to China to replace hard cash lost under U.N. sanctions imposed to block its sale of missiles. According to the Los Angeles Times: Defectors who claim firsthand knowledge report that Kim Jong-il skims from the profits to fund himself, his nuclear program and to ensure the loyalty of elites, and that "the military is also sending trucks to state farms to haul away as much as a quarter of the annual harvest for its soldiers," as well as posting guards there. [Source: Art Winslow, Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2010]

Military Industry of North Korea

North Korea's extensive defense production capability reflects its commitment to self-reliance. Although most equipment is of Soviet or Chinese design, Pyongyang has modified the original designs and produces both derivatives and indigenously designed versions of armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, light tanks, and high-speed landing craft. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

In mid-1993 North Korea had an impressive, if technologically dated, military production capacity. Ground systems production included a complete line of armored vehicles, field artillery, including a new turreted self-propelled artillery piece first seen in April 1992, and crew- and individual-served weapons. Naval construction included surface combatants up to 1,400 tons, Romeo class submarines, air-cushioned vehicles, and a wide range of specialized infiltration craft. Missile production included antitank guided missiles (AT-3), SA-7 Grail (Soviet surface-to- air missiles produced at the Chongyul Arms Plant), and possibly SA-14 or SA-16 follow-ons, possibly SA-2s, and Scud-derived surface-to-surface missiles. Aircraft production was limited to a partial spare parts and assembly capacity, assembly or coproduction of the Mi-2 helicopter, and production of small trainers. Since the mid-1980s, there has been speculation that North Korea's aircraft-related facility at Panghyn would begin production of a jet combat aircraft — possibly a MiG-21 derivative — but as of 1992 no production had occurred. In 1991 South Korean sources believed North Korea might be able to produce its own fighters by 1995. In 1993 two MiG-29s were assembled at the Panghyn plant from kits supplied by Russia. Assembly was halted because of North Korea's inability to pay for more parts.*

In 1990 North Korea had some 134 arms factories, many of them completely or partially concealed underground. These facilities produce ground service arms, ammunition, armored vehicles, naval craft, aircraft (spares and subassemblies), missiles, electronics, and possibly chemical-related materials. In addition, some 115 nonmilitary factories have a dedicated wartime matériel production mission.*

North Korea's arms and munitions industry predate the Korean War. After the war, North Korea began to expand its arms production base through licensing agreements with the Soviet Union. North Korea initially depended on the Soviet Union and China for licensed technology and complete industrial plants. In the 1970s, North Korea was developing variants of standard Soviet and Chinese equipment. Acquisitions from these two sources were augmented beginning in the early 1970s by an outreach program aimed at acquiring Western dual-use technology and equipment. This program included a wide range of initiatives, from acquiring Japanese trucks and electronic gear to obtaining Austrian forging equipment with gun barrel applications, to purchasing United States-manufactured helicopters. North Korea compensates for its limited research and development base by producing a range of more basic systems in quantity.*

The defense industrial base is difficult to assess accurately. Pyongyang desires state-of-the-art technology, but is unable to obtain it. Older weapons systems are obtainable, however, and North Korea is able to reverse engineer major systems and to modify and improve on them. Nevertheless, it still lags dramatically behind military state of the art because the systems remain dated. Because of its uneven technological base, North Korea apparently places the highest priority on quantity to make up for a lack of quality.*

Dominance of the Military in the North Korean Economy

Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post when Kim Jong-il was still in power: “North Korea's military has grabbed nearly complete command of the nation's state-run economy and staked out a lucrative new trade in mineral sales to China to make money for its supreme commander Kim Jong-il. As it deepens its dominance over nearly every aspect of daily life, the Korean People's Army is also deploying soldiers to take first dibs on all food harvested in the isolated, chronically hungry country, according to the latest assessments of analysts. [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, November 3, 2009]

“The army has earned hundreds of millions of dollars selling missiles and weapons to Iran, Pakistan, Syria and other nations. But its two nuclear tests, the most recent of which occurred in May, have triggered U.N. sanctions that are now choking off arms sales. So the army has come up with a new business model, taking over the management of state trading companies to rapidly increase sales of coal, iron ore and other minerals to China, according to trade data and analysts.

“The potential profits are eye-popping: China is one of the world's most voracious consumers of raw materials, and North Korea's mineral reserves are worth $5.94 trillion, according to an estimate by South Korea's Ministry of Unification. China has been critical of North Korea's nuclear program and missile tests, but it also has vastly increased its economic ties with Kim's government.

Kim is increasingly creaming off a significant slice of Chinese mineral revenue to fund his nuclear program and to buy the loyalty of elites, according to "North Korea, Inc.," a recent report by the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington-based group funded by the U.S. Congress.

The report echoes the views of North Korean analysts in South Korea, Japan and the United States, who say the military has elbowed out other ministries and the Korean Workers' Party to take control of exports that earn hard currency. The military is also sending trucks to state farms to haul away as much as a quarter of the annual harvest for its soldiers, analysts say. "The military is by far the largest, most capable and most efficient organization in North Korea, and Kim Jong Il is making maximum use of it," said Lim Eul-chul of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

“Kim's top priority is a ferocious military that can deter a preemptive strike on the nuclear facilities that make North Korea an actor on the international stage, according to Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, a former CIA intelligence analyst who specialized in North Korea. But Kim also demands that the military be the primary engine of national prosperity. Outside economists describe that strategy as absurd because defense spending usually crowds out sustainable economic growth. North Korea, though, thinks differently. "Once we lay the foundation for a powerful self-sustaining national defense industry, we will be able to rejuvenate all economic fields," said the Nodong Sinmun, the main government newspaper.

Role of the Military in Daily North Korean Economic Life

Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post: “North Korea is perhaps the world's most secretive and repressive state, but it makes no attempt to hide the ubiquitous role the military plays in the daily lives of the country's 23.5 million people. Soldiers dig clams and launch missiles, pick apples and build irrigation canals, market mushrooms and supervise the export of knockoff Nintendo games. They also guard the country's 3,000 cooperative farms, and help themselves to scarce food in a hungry country. "The army is the people, the state and the party," the government has declared. All references to the word "communism" were removed this year from the North Korean constitution. They were replaced with the word "songun," which means "military first." Defectors and outside experts agree that "military first" is a literal description of how the economy works, how citizens are forced to organize their lives and how Kim remains powerful -- and wealthy. [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, November 3, 2009]

“In a cold, mountainous country chronically short of food, it is no small trick to feed more than a million soldiers every day. In the "military first" era, the army has come up with muscular solutions. "At harvest time, soldiers bring their own trucks to the farms and just take," said Kwon Tae-jin, a specialist on North Korean agriculture at the Korea Rural Economic Institute, which is funded by the South Korean government.

“In the far north, where food supplies are historically lean, the military takes a quarter of total grain production, Kwon said. In other areas of the country, he said, it takes 5 to 7 percent. To make sure that workers at state farms do not shortchange the military, Kwon said, the army stations soldiers at all 3,000 of them. He said that when tens of thousands of city dwellers are brought to the farms to assist with the fall harvest, soldiers monitor them to make sure they do not steal food.

“The permanent deployment of soldiers on the farms has led to a pattern of corruption, Kwon said: Farm managers pay off soldiers, who then turn a blind eye to large-scale theft of food that is later sold in private markets. Disputes among groups of corrupt soldiers periodically lead to fistfights and shootouts, according to a number of defectors and reports by aid groups. And chronic malnutrition among low-level soldiers persists. In the past month, Good Friends, a Buddhist aid group with informants in the North, reported on a fight between soldiers and guards at a state farm. In a scuffle over a piece of corn, one soldier was reportedly stabbed with a sickle.”

Role of the North Korean Military in Foreign Trade

Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post: “Missile sales were for many years major earners of foreign currency, according to a report for the Strategic Studies Institute by Daniel A. Pinkston, who is now a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group. But the cost of the arms trade has gone up and sales have declined as a result of U.N. sanctions imposed after the North's nuclear tests in 2006 and this year, South Korean analysts say. [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, November 3, 2009]

The military has thus turned to its new Chinese cash cow. As the army has taken over management of mines in North Korea, mineral exports to China have soared, rising from $15 million in 2003 to $213 million last year. Led by those sales, the North's total trade volume rose last year to its highest level since 1990, when a far more prosperous and less isolated North Korea was subsidized by the Soviet Union.

A unique advantage the Korean People's Army brings to foreign trade is a well-disciplined workforce that has to be paid -- nothing. Soldiers receive food, clothes and lodging, but virtually no cash. This competitive edge makes military-run trading companies especially attractive to the North's leadership, according to the Institute of Peace report.

Based on confidential interviews with recent North Korean defectors, four of whom said they worked for trading companies run by the military, the paper concludes that a "designated percentage of all revenues generated from commercial activities . . . goes directly into Kim Jong Il's personal accounts." The rest of the revenue flows into the operating budget of the military.

Underground Military Facilities in North Korea

North Korea has an estimated 11,000 to 15,000 underground military-industrial sites. They are used to reprocess nuclear material and make tanks. Duplicate facilities are often built for important function such as communications and tank building. Some analyst believe that virtually everything of military significance is underground. [Source: Los Angeles Times]

There are believed to several hundred large facilities and thousand of smaller one as well as tens of thousands of bunkers. In the countryside you can see entryways dug into the sides of hills and covered with concrete.. One analyst told the Los Angeles Times, “The place is like Swiss cheese there are so many holes.

The facilities were built underground in response to concerns about bombing raids by the United States. “The entire nation must be made into a fortress,” Kim Il Sung wrote in 1963, “We must dig ourselves into the ground to protect ourselves.” Much of the work to build the underground facilities is done with equipment imported from Europe, using Japanese tunneling equipment. Many of the facilities are drilled into mountains rather than dug into the ground to avoid hitting the water table and requiring extensive waterproofing. Fiber-optic cables have been installed to improve communications from command centers. Spy planes and satellites can not see the facilities. They look for power lines leading to them, truck traffic and evidence of construction and digging.

There are monthly air raid warnings in North Korea. The Pyongyang subway system has reportedly been designed to serve as an air raid shelter. Some of the stations are more than 100 meters underground. At the international airport there is said to be a mostly underground runway that protect planes from hostile fire until they take off.

Working in a North Korean Underground Military Facility

One defector told the Los Angeles Times he lived underground in a facility that was dug almost a kilometer into a mountain. His responsibilities included digging more tunnels and carrying tightly sealed container believed to contain material used in North Korea’s secret weapons program. Secrecy inside the facilities is so tight, he said, that workers often don’t know what there are making. [Source: Los Angeles Times]

The defector said, “Once you go in, you don’t go out. I volunteered for this, but then I came to realize that it was like a big prison and we were slaves.” He said he took an oath to work until he was 60. In nine years he only left once, and that was after bribing a guard so he could see his family.

Some workers are allowed periodic visits with their families under supervision in a reception area outside the facility. Sometimes entire families live facilities, which have schools, canteens and recreation facilities. The defector said. “In these places, people have a lot of privileges. There is no problem with food and there are good schools, but they are like concentration camps too. You live in secrecy under constant suspicion.:

Tunnels in North Korea

It is believed that the North Koreans have drilled more than 20 invasion tunnels below the DMZ. "At the tunnels's south ends, the last 10 yards of rock would be removed by hand and pickax and rolled down an incline to storage rooms." So far four tunnels have been discovered (the last in 1990) and some are large enough to permit a regiment (2,400 men) to infiltrate into the South every hour. [Source: U.S. News and World Report]

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The discovery between 1974 and 1990 of at least four major tunnel systems running from North Korea across the demilitarized zone and into the South rattled South Korean nerves. Some were discovered after patrolling soldiers noticed smoke, heard voices and felt explosions underground, others after intelligence was gleaned from defectors. Experts estimated that the cross-border shafts, some with rail lines, platforms for heavy equipment and communication cables buried hundreds of feet below ground, would allow 30,000 North Korean troops to infiltrate in an hour. "It was eerie," said David M. Finkelstein, director of Project Asia and a North Korea specialist. "I was absolutely amazed at how wide and high the tunnel I visited was." There haven't been any major discoveries in recent years, leading some to conclude the North has focused its tunnel-building exclusively inward. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2006]

Finding the tunnels is like locating a needle in a haystack a geological engineer told U.S. News and World Report. "The rock is very hard granite, bland stuff for geophysical sensors. the average tunnel is 2 meters or so in diameter — a very small target at 100 meters deep. U.S. spy agencies have reportedly hired psychics to search for North Korean tunnels under the DMZ.

In the 1970s, three tunnels dug by the North Korean under the DMZ were discovered. The second one was discovered in 1975 by a South Korean soldier at the DMZ who heard dynamite blasts in the ground beneath him. The tunnel is 3,500 meters in length and is an average of two meters high and 2.5 meters wide. With openings about 1,100 meters south of the MDL (Military Demarcation Line between the two Koreas), the tunnels reportedly could funnel 30,000 troops and several jeeps in a few hours. When the tunnel was discovered eight soldiers were killed in a fire fight.

Most of North Korean weapons and storage facilities are kept in tunnels or underground facilities. In 1996, the North Korean government was reportedly building 60 underground tunnels to store 1.4 million tons of war rations. North Korea can reportedly move an invasion force through the tunnels at a rate of ten soldiers a minute. Tank size-tunnels have been found, some bored into granite, over 73 meters (240 feet deep).

North Korea’s Love of Tunnels

After North Korea detonated its first nuclear bomb, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “North Korea certainly had several reasons to conduct the October 9 test underground: The subterranean endeavor provided an element of surprise by allowing the government in Pyongyang to time the blast for maximum political impact. It hid many of the preparations from prying U.S. satellites. And, assuming that adherence to international agreements matters to North Korea, it allowed the regime to comply with the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty, which forbids above-ground testing. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2006]

“But the North's love affair with tunnels goes far deeper than the shaft bored into the 1,188-foot Hwadaeri mountain that has become the focus of global attention. Tunnels hold deep psychological comfort for the North Koreans, analysts say, providing a sense of safety from above-ground threats. "North Korea's extensive tunnel network makes them much braver in times of crisis like this," said Kim Tae-woo, a senior fellow with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. "It's a key part of the political effect their authorities aim at, the belief that the nation can be defended."

“According to South Korean propagandists, North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung once said, "One good tunnel is worth more than an atomic bomb." "It's an effective and easy way to deal with countries like the U.S. and Japan with advanced technology," Jin Linbo, Asia-Pacific director with the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, said of the North's tunnel vision, which had its genesis in the Korean War half a century ago. "For a poor country with mountains, the only way is to take advantage of this land advantage."

“Each subsequent war involving archenemy America that North Koreans have watched on their fuzzy TV sets — from Vietnam and the removal of President Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia to the two Iraq wars — has only underscored the strength of U.S. airpower and the need to retreat farther into the darkness of the North's estimated 8,000 to 18,000 tunnels.

“The nation's obsession can be seen in the 330-foot depth of the Pyongyang subway, the fear of imminent U.S. attack reinforced by constant propaganda and the location deep underground of museums related to the military or leadership. "This has more security in case of bombing," guide Paek Hye Sim told foreign visitors in one museum north of the capital last fall.

“A 33-page "Detailed Wartime Guidelines" manual from North Korea that surfaced in South Korea early last year orders all government offices and military units to retreat underground with weapons and food within 24 hours of a war breaking out. South Korean analysts said its timing reflected the Pyongyang regime's fear that it was Washington's next target after Iraq. Everyone should also bring their portraits, plaster busts and bronze statues of leader Kim Jong Il and his parents, it adds, so that these might be protected in a special room.

“The fear that Northern soldiers might one day pop out of a Seoul or Incheon sewer has spurred on a small group of avid South Korean tunnel hunters who comb the country, poking microphones, cameras and lasers into the ground in search of the North's mole holes. "Kim Jong Il's regime can only collapse, but even a rat will charge if driven into a corner," said Kim Han-sik, a pastor who heads a prominent tunnel-hunting group. "We don't know when the country could be taken by the North Koreans."

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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