North Korea spends a greater proportion of its money on defence than any other nation. The reclusive state spent nearly a quarter of its GDP on the military over the past decade, according to US government estimates.
Yet beyond its high profile nuclear and cyber weapons programmes, analysts say the country’s armed forces are undermined by badly outdated equipment and vehicles.
Nuclear weapons and missiles
North Korea has been carrying out underground tests of increasingly big nuclear bombs since 2006. It is estimated to have enough plutonium for at least five or six bombs.
The key question is whether it can make miniaturised nuclear warheads that could be placed in ballistic missiles to hit distant targets.
Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear weapons expert, said last year that “we must assume” North Korea has designed and demonstrated nuclear warheads for short and perhaps medium range missiles that could strike targets in Asia. He said the ability to fit a nuclear warhead to a missile capable of reaching the United States “is still a long way off—perhaps 5 to 10 years, but likely doable if the program is unconstrained”.
North Korea is believed to have more than 1,000 missiles of varying ranges. Short range missiles such as Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6 (both variants of Scud missiles) can easily hit targets in South Korea, while medium range Nodong missiles can hit all of Japan.
Longer range Musudan missile has an estimated range of anywhere from 1,550 to 2,500 miles. At the top end it could reach US military bases on Guam.
North Korea is believed to be developing a longer range intercontinental ballistic missile called the KN-08. The Pentagon said last year it believed the missile “would likely be capable of reaching much of the continental United States”.
Chemical and biological weapons
South Korea and the US both accuse the North of having extensive chemical and biological weapons programmes.
After decades of investment, the country is believed to be able to make most types of chemical weapons, but focus on sulphur mustard, chlorine, phosgene, sarin and VX. Stockpiles are estimated at 2,500-5,000 tons. Chemical toxins can be fired in a wide range of artillery shells, rockets and missiles.
Details of its biological arsenal are more sketchy. Seoul says its neighbour is able to produce anthrax, smallpox and haemorrhagic fevers among other pathogens, but it’s not clear if these are battlefield ready.
North Korea’s Army dominates its military. But while the country has huge numbers of soldiers, their vehicles and equipment date back decades. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies: “North Korea remains reliant on a predominantly obsolescent equipment inventory across all three services.”
The Army is 1,020,000 strong, with more than 3,500 main battle tanks made up of ageing T-34, T-54, T-55 and T-62 types dating back decades. It is estimated to have more than 21,000 different artillery pieces.
The North Korean navy has 72 tactical submarines, three frigates and nearly 400 patrol vessels.
The North Korean air force is estimated to have 563 combat capable aircraft, largely Chinese built J-5s, J-6s and J-7s dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. It also has some more up to date MiG 21s, MiG-23s and a small number of MiG-29s.
The air force is said to be blighted by difficulties maintaining its fleet and in 2014 it reportedly ceased all flying for a time after the crash of an obsolete jet.
Gen Vincent Brooks, commander of the US Army in South Korea, has called North Koreas’ cyber attack capability “among the best in the world and the best-organized”.
Defectors have said the heart of the country’s prowess is a sophisticated cyber-warfare cell called Bureau 121, staffed by as many as 6,000 hackers. Much of the attacks are targeted at government targets in the South, but North Korea is also believed to have been behind a crippling 2014 hack into computers at Sony Pictures Entertainment.