What is North Korea's military might?

Ben Farmer

North Korea ploughs a huge proportion of its meagre economy into its military, and its ambitious missile, nuclear and cyber programmes are causing widespread international alarm.

Pyongyang 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, missile and cyber programmes, the country’s armed forces are believed to be undermined by decrepit equipment and vehicles.

Missiles and nuclear weapons

North Korea’s decades-long missile research programme entered a grave new phase on July 4 with what the regime called a "landmark" test of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The land-based missile landed in the Sea of Japan after a steep trajectory flight of 580 miles, but analysts said the flight appeared to show the missile had a potential range of 4,160 miles - bringing Alaska in range.

The Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea, shown on April 12, 2017 Credit:  Pleiades CNES/Airbus DS/38 North/Spot Image/AP

The launch was the latest in what appears to be an escalating missile program and follows decades of research by the state.

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.

What military experts say appears to be a North Korean KN-08 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile under development by North Korea  Credit:  Wong Maye-E/AP

Before the July 4 launch, North Korea was 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”.

Concern over the missile programme is heightened because of North Korea’s parallel nuclear weapons programme.

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”.

Chemical and biological weapons

South Korea and the US both accuse the North of having extensive chemical and biological weapons programmes.

North Korea is accused of developing VX nerve agent such as that used to kill Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un Credit:  MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty

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.

Army

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.”

North Korean soldiers salute while the national anthem is played during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung Credit: Wong Maye-E/AP

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.

Navy

Kim Jong-un on board 'Submarine No 748' during a visit to the east coast North Korean Navy Unit 167 in a photo released in June 2014 Credit: EPA/Rodong Sinmun

The North Korean navy has 72 tactical submarines, three frigates and nearly 400 patrol vessels.

Air force

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.

North Korean air force pilots run toward fighter planes during an anti-air strike drill Credit: NORTH KOREA AIR FORCE/AP

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.  

Cyber

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.

 

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