How Advanced Is the Korean Military?

The North Korean military is something of a paradox — while it’s enormous for a country of only 25 million inhabitants and boasts an incredible array of equipment, some of it very unusual, they’re simultaneously really not that powerful. The country’s poverty keeps their military forces weak while their incredible propaganda machine keeps them making claims to actually be very advanced.

Military Vehicles

North Korea has an impressive amount of military equipment, reportedly possessing 4,200 tanks and over 1,800 military aircraft, including 820 fighter jets. They have 40+ submarines, making theirs the world’s largest submarine fleet. But much of this technology is outdated — nearly half their tank force, for example, are aging Soviet T-55 battle tanks. You can see pictures of much of their equipment in‘s commentary on the 2013 Victory Day parade. Further, much of that weaponry is really just for show — North Korea doesn’t have the fuel necessary to actually deploy most of their air force.

Unconventional Weaponry

The combination of poverty and enmity with most of the Western world has driven North Korea into some unusual areas of technological development. Unable to fuel their larger ships, they have turned to the development of midget submarines and human torpedoes. The human torpedo is a particularly strange weapon — an underwater self-propelled missile that is actually straddled by one or two pilots like a scene out of Dr. Strangelove. During the cold war many nations used such human torpedoes, but they have since largely fallen out of use — except in North Korea, according to defector Kang Myung Cheol. Operating in violation of many international treaties, the North Korean military is at liberty to delve into the dirtier side of modern warfare, as well. They are widely suspected of having chemical warfare capabilities, with large chemical stores hidden in military bases around the country. CNN has reported that they also have ZM-87 anti-personnel lasers. Though the weapons are banned by United Nations’ Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, North Korea does as they please. One of only a few real-world laser weapons ever developed, the Chinese ZM-87 is designed to be used to blind enemy soldiers, and can be used to sabotage missile seekers and video cameras as well.

Nuclear Capability

One of the biggest questions facing the world today is whether North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, and if so, how powerful are they? North Korea has performed three nuclear tests in recent years — on in 2006, another in 2009, and a third in 2013. In 2009 they claimed to possess a nuclear weapon, but seeing through the cloud of Korean military propaganda and media hysteria to find the truth can be difficult. However, most authorities agree that North Korea has a small stockpile of fairly simple nuclear weaponry. According to the Institute for Science and International Security, North Korea probably has between 12 and 27 “nuclear weapon equivalents,” an estimate that includes stockpiles of non-weaponized uranium and plutonium. In early 2013, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that the country likely has between 6 and 8 actual nuclear warheads.

As a whole, The Korean People’s Army appears to be a technologically backwards military force, boasting more in scale than in specialization. They are certainly a threat to be reckoned with, but as a whole the Korean military is not very advanced.