North Korea: The Foundations for Military Strength -- Update 1995
December 1995

Chapter 4

Military Forces

North Korea's military force structure and doctrine reflect aspects of both Soviet operational art and Chinese People's Liberation Army light infantry doctrine. However, the primary influences have always been Pyongyang's operational experience in the Korean war, the peninsular environment, and North Korea's military culture and martial philosophy.

North Korea's military strategy is primarily concerned with an offensive against South Korea and defense against a counterattack. Pyongyang has created the most militarized peacetime society in the world today, diverting tremendous investment resources away from productive sectors of the economy. The North Korean Army remains largely an infantry army adapted to peninsular conditions and employs infantry tactics developed during the Korean war. North Korean Army tactical doctrine has always emphasized surprise, firepower, mobility, and strong armor and artillery components to meet these needs.

Focus on Enhancing Military Capabilities

Ground Forces

With roughly 923,000 active-duty troops, the ground forces are by far the largest and most formidable of North Korea's military forces. The size, organization, and combat capabilities of the Army provide Pyong-yang with both an offensive military option and the ability to protect its homeland.

Organization and Disposition

The ground forces have eight conventional infantry corps, four mechanized corps, an armored corps, an artillery corps, and the Pyongyang Defense Command's Capital Defense Corps dedicated to wartime operations. The geographic dispersal of ground forces reflects the varied terrain of the nation and the consideration given to both defensive and offensive operations. The most capable ground forces are near the DMZ, where they defend the border or could be rapidly committed to a cross-border assault. Behind this zone, a layered disposition of mechanized exploitation forces provides for a speedy offensive or active defense of Pyongyang as needed. Korean reserve forces are positioned to defend against a sea invasion along either coast and can quickly assume territorial defense roles to allow for forward commitment of active-duty forces.

The most significant development in the ground forces has been the continued deployment of long-range artillery systems (240-mm multiple rocket launchers and 170-mm self-propelled guns) near the DMZ. Although these deployments are not yet complete, the North is continuing production of these long-range systems. The increasing number of long-range artillery systems gives North Korea the ability to provide devastating indirect firepower in support of ground force operations. Pyongyang has deployed over 10,000 artillery systems, an increase of almost 10 percent over the past 15 years, in addition to over 2,300 multiple rocket launchers. Most of the artillery is self-propelled and can support a rapidly moving operation.

Weapons and Equipment

North Korea has some 4,000 medium and light tanks and assault guns, including over 2,000 T-54/55 main battle tanks of Soviet 1950s-era design. In addition, North Korea has indigenously produced about 700 T-62 tanks - a more capable version of the T-55 that was the Soviet Union's main battle tank in the 1960s. Light tanks are also fielded in large numbers and include variants of the former Soviet PT-76 and Chinese Type 62/63. An additional tank (T-34) and assault guns (ASU-85/100) reside with the reserve infantry divisions.

Although most of the Army is light infantry, it contains about 2,300 armored personnel carriers. North Korea has made a dedicated effort to expand motorized transportation available to its infantry forces. This provides Pyongyang with a flexible, mobile exploitation force that would be called on to exploit breakthroughs in defensive lines during wartime.


The 46,000-member North Korean Navy is primarily a coastal defense force. Most naval vessels are small, patrol-sized craft unable to operate over 50 nautical miles from the coast but capable of policing North Korea's territorial waters. The Navy's numerous amphibious craft and midget submarines also can clandestinely insert special operations forces into South Korea.

Organization and Disposition

The Navy is organized into 13 naval commands under separate East and West Coast Fleets directly subordinate to the Supreme Navy Command. The two fleets do not share vessels. The East Coast Fleet is headquartered at Toejo Dong, with major bases at Najin and Wonsan. The West Coast Fleet is headquartered at Nampo, with major bases at Pipa Got and Sagon Ni. Numerous smaller bases line both coasts.

Weapons and Equipment

Since 1980, North Korean naval expansion has largely supported special operations and submarine missions. North Korea's 26 diesel attack submarines include WHISKEY and ROMEO Class vessels that can be armed with mines or torpedoes. In addition, the Navy also maintains over 48 North Korean-built YUGO minisubmarines, 3 SANGO coastal submarines, and 3 missile frigates. The North continues to emphasize production of the multirole SANGOs for minelaying and inserting special operations forces.

The Navy's 39 guided-missile patrol boats are another capable weapon system. North Korea possesses several versions of the Soviet OSA-1, called the SOJU, each equipped with four SSN-2A/STYX antiship missile launchers. The Soviet KOMAR Class guided-missile patrol boat and its North Korean counterpart, the SOHUNG, are smaller and carry only two STYX launchers.

The largest portion of the North Korean Navy consists of small combatants: torpedo boats, patrol craft, submarine chasers, and fast attack craft. Of the 320 torpedo boats, at least 250 are North Korean-built. Pyongyang also has at least 60 CHAHO patrol boats equipped with either 30- or 40-tube 122-mm multiple rocket launchers in the center of the deck to provide fire support to ground troops or to disable large, slow-moving ships near the coast.

North Korea possesses approximately 130 NAMPO amphibious landing craft, based on a Soviet P-6 torpedo boat hull, with a maximum range of 325 nautical miles and a capacity of up to 60 troops. In 1988, production of the KONG BANG II and KONG BANG III air-cushion personnel landing craft began. Unlike the NAMPO, which requires special operations forces to disembark onto rubber rafts, the KONG BANG hovercraft can offload troops directly onto nearly all of South Korea's beaches. This program has resulted in fielding over 130 KONG BANGs to support numerous amphibious landings during wartime.

Air Force

The North Korean Air Force has four primary missions: air defense, transport of special operations forces, strategic bombing, and air support to ground forces.

Organization and Disposition

Approximately 840 jet aircraft, 300 transport aircraft, 300 helicopters, and 85,000 people form the Air Force's fighter, bomber, helicopter, and transport regiments. Most aircraft traditionally have been deployed in the central and northern regions of the country. The regiments are well organized for command and control of forces in wartime.

Numerous operational, alternate, and secondary airfields throughout North Korea provide more than adequate runways for the large Air Force. Hardened shelters at operational airfields provide increased protection for aircraft. Unoccupied airfields in southern regions near the DMZ can support flight operations during war, extending the range of fighter aircraft well into the South.

Weapons and Equipment

About two-thirds of the Air Force's 1,100 combat aircraft are older generation Soviet- or Chinese-made designs incorporating 1950s and 1960s technology.

Older fighter aircraft include 160 MiG-21/FISHBEDs, 20 Su-7/FITTERs, 160 MiG-19/FARMERs, 120 MiG-17/FRESCOs, and 190 MiG-15/FAGOTs. Most of these aircraft are daylight, clear-weather-capable only, and carry limited weapon loads. Three regiments totaling 80 medium-range Il-28/BEAGLEs are the only bombers in the Air Force inventory.

The Air Force received a limited number of newer, all-weather, air defense and ground-attack aircraft from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In 1985, North Korea acquired 45 MiG-23/FLOGGERs, with increased range and payload over other older, less capable North Korean fighters. This aircraft can carry the older AA-2/ATOLL and the more sophisticated AA-7/APEX air-to-air missiles in an air intercept role. It can also be armed with general purpose bombs and rockets for ground-attack missions.

In 1985, North Korea also acquired 15 Soviet MiG-29/FULCRUM fighters. The MiG-29 carries the AA-10/ALAMO beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile. These FULCRUMs provide Pyongyang with a limited but much improved air defense capability.

In the late 1980s, the Air Force improved its ground-attack capabilities when it acquired 35 Su-25/ FROGFOOT aircraft from the Soviet Union. All-weather capable and well armored, the FROGFOOT has a combat radius of 300 nautical miles and carries up to 5,000 kilograms of bombs and rockets. However, North Korea has yet to show it has mastered the full potential of this highly capable fighter bomber.

The bulk of North Korea's transport inventory consists of nearly 300 1948-vintage An-2/COLTs. This single-engine biplane can cruise at 160 kilometers per hour. Capable of carrying up to 10 combat troops while flying at low altitude and slow speeds to avoid radar detection, the An-2 is uniquely suited for delivering special operations forces behind enemy lines.

Air Defense

North Korea has historically put a high emphasis on air defense, placing military industries, aircraft hangars, repair facilities, ammunition, fuel, and even air defense missiles underground or in hardened shelters. Pyongyang's interpretation of the lessons of DESERT STORM reinforces this strategy.

Ground-based assets bear primary responsibility for homeland air defense. The North deploys roughly 11,000 antiaircraft artillery guns and has over 50 surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites to provide one of the world's most dense air defense networks. Most of these sites are equipped with SA-2/GUIDELINE medium-range missile launchers, but North Korea also has some SA-3/GOA short-range and SA-5/GAMMON long-range SAMs.

In addition, North Korean ground force units are equipped with over 15,000 SA-7/GRAIL and SA-16/GIMLET man-portable air defense systems. Deployed in massive numbers, these shoulder-fired systems present a major threat to opposing tactical aircraft.

North Korea has also recently emphasized selected technological improvements in developing and testing unmanned aerial vehicles and drones. These vehicles may be equipped with cameras for surveillance or target acquisition or launched as decoys to fool enemy radars.

Ballistic Missile Forces

Despite economic problems, since the early 1980s North Korea has spent millions of dollars annually in an aggressive ballistic missile development program. Pyongyang has progressed from producing short-range SCUD missiles to the developmental testing of a medium-range missile, the No Dong, to early-stage development of longer range two-stage missiles, the Taepo Dong I (TD 1) and Taepo Dong II (TD 2).

North Korea has a brigade-sized SCUD B/C surface-to-surface missile (SSM) unit about 50 kilometers north of the DMZ. Several SCUD B/C facilities have also been noted in development near the DMZ. These facilities would provide North Korea with additional hardened sites that could double or triple the numbers of SSM launchers and support equipment in the forward area.

North Korea produces an indigenous variant of the former Soviet Union's SCUD B, known as the SCUD C. The C model has a 700-kg warhead with an improved range of 500 kilometers over the B model's 300 kilometers. It also has an improved inertial guidance system for better accuracy. The North Koreans can produce four to eight SCUDs a month for their own armed forces or for export. For nearly a decade, North Korea has deployed SCUD-type, mobile SSMs capable of reaching all of South Korea. The country continues to emphasize its ballistic missile development program, which eventually could provide Pyongyang with a system capable of threatening other countries in Northeast Asia.

The No Dong is a medium-range missile based on SCUD technology. It has a range of about 1,000 kilometers with a 1,000-kg warhead. The No Dong was originally designed for export, but it still has not been produced in numbers suitable either for export or for operational deployment in North Korea.

North Korea's two long-range ballistic missile systems under development are the Taepo Dong I and Taepo Dong II. Both are two-stage systems. The estimated range for the TD 1 is more than 1,500 kilometers, while that of the TD 2 is more than 4,000 kilometers. At present, both systems are in the design stage. Before they reach flyable prototype form, Pyongyang must surmount difficulties in developing multistaging and engine clustering. North Korea has no experience with these significant technologies.

Special Operations Forces

North Korea maintains a large, highly trained special operations force with 100,000 troops assigned to 24 brigades and 28 reconnaissance battalions. These forces have four basic missions: establishing a second front in the enemy's rear area, conducting reconnaissance, performing combat operations in concert with conventional operations, and countering the South's special operations in North Korean rear areas. Like all other North Korean troops, special operations forces can be tasked with maintaining internal security if the need arises.

North Korea classifies its special operations forces as reconnaissance, light infantry, or sniper. Team-sized elements conduct reconnaissance to collect intelligence or targeting information. Light infantry forces in company- or battalion-sized units attack military, political, or economic targets. Sniper operations are similar to those of the light infantry, but on a smaller scale, employing team-sized units.

The North Korean Air Force supports special operations missions with airborne infiltration and resupply using its An-2/COLTs. Almost one-fifth of the Navy's assets also support special operations with hovercraft and minisubmarines.

Reserve Forces

Lessons of the Korean war shape the North's military planning to a large degree, and Pyongyang determined that an inadequate reserve force for homeland defense was a critical deficiency during the Korean war. Therefore, North Korea's current Army reserve force totals nearly 700,000. In addition, the Red Guard Militia, composed of mobilization units with the primary mission of ensuring production at facilities and defending them from attack, numbers over 3 million. This large manpower pool can mobilize in a short time, and mobilization is exercised in all aspects - from resource callups to evacuations of key industrial resources to alternate sites.

All Army reserve and Red Guard Militia personnel receive annual training. North Koreans usually serve in the Red Youth Guards (15 to 17) until their conscription into the Army (18 to 25). Upon discharge, a former soldier is employed at a North Korean factory, enterprise, or collective farm. He will also serve in the reserve unit headquartered at his job location until the age of 40. At that time, most are reassigned to the Red Guard Militia. The quality of military training and the soldiers' endurance, military discipline, and party dedication support the government's conviction that the country is indeed a military fortress.

Security Forces

The security forces, including the Department of State Security and the Ministry of Public Security, are responsible for protecting the country, its leaders, important visitors, borders, facilities, and operations. The forces number about 200,000 people, of which a fraction have a military mission.

Wartime Employment

The wartime offensive strategy of North Korean forces is to move southward as quickly as possible to gain control of strategic areas and prevent reinforcement of the peninsula by allied forces. The significance of the allied logistic buildup during the Gulf War was not lost on North Korean operational planners. For this reason, North Korea continues to concentrate troops, tanks, self-propelled artillery, and logistics near the DMZ.

At the onset of hostilities, ground artillery units would launch massive preparatory fire at defensive lines along major routes of advance in South Korea. North Korean infantry and armored elements of the forward divisions would attempt to penetrate allied forward defenses to provide areas for the exploitation forces to maneuver through. The exploitation forces are responsible for penetrating deep into South Korea, bypassing and isolating allied units to maintain their operational tempo.

The North Korean Navy's primary wartime roles include inserting special operations forces, inhibiting US reinforcement of the peninsula, and defending North Korea's coasts from attacking amphibious forces. The Navy would use its expanding inventory of hovercraft and its fleet of minisubmarines to insert special operations forces into South Korea prior to hostilities.

The North Korean Air Force would launch time-sequenced attacks against fixed or preplanned targets in conjunction with artillery, SSMs, and special operations forces. Since North Korea recognizes that South Korea and the United States will quickly gain air superiority, it would concentrate much of its initial effort at degrading air force assets in the South.

Special operations forces perform at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels to establish a second front in the enemy's rear during wartime. Current force structure and deployment of North Korean special operations forces support an easy transition to war; sniper, light infantry, and reconnaissance units are fully integrated into all operational North Korean Army corps. Consequently, a shift to wartime operations would be difficult to detect before hostilities began.

Weapon Production

President Kim Il-song left a legacy based on chuche ideology, which promoted a self-sufficient, closed society. Military forces that can operate for an extended period without outside support reflect this ideology. Increasingly, however, questions have been raised about Pyongyang's ability to indefinitely make military improvements. Similarly, its efforts to stockpile sufficient ammunition, food, and oil in hardened underground facilities to sustain combat for several months without outside aid entail major costs to an economy that is buffeted by growing pressures.

The North remains capable of producing some higher quality weaponry and military equipment for use by its own forces and for export to other countries. Several hundred factories produce military materiel, so North Korea can manufacture most of the basic weapons and equipment it requires. A continuing priority for Pyongyang in recent years has been increased production of ammunition for the offensive weapons it has produced.

The North has either hardened many of its production facilities or put them underground, so significant production output could continue during conflict. Indigenous production of weapons and parts, stemming from President Kim Il-song's chuche doctrine, makes North Korea much less dependent on foreign support in case of conflict.

North Korea indigenously produces a number of weapon systems for each of the armed services. They continue to produce a variety of artillery systems, self-propelled guns ranging from 122-mm to 170-mm, and multiple rocket launchers ranging from 107-mm to 240-mm. The North has also indigenously produced armored personnel carriers, antitank guns, mortars, handheld rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and AT-1/SNAPPER and AT-3/SAGGER wire-guided antitank missiles.

The SANGO submarine and hovercraft continue to be priority projects for the Navy.

The North possesses a small-scale aircraft production and assembly capability limited to tactical transports and helicopters.

Command, Control, and Communications

North Korea currently is modernizing its aged telecommunications infrastructure to improve the speed and quality and expand the capacity of both domestic and international communications.

A fiber-optic cable linking Pyongyang and Hamhung was complete by early 1995, with construction from Pyongyang to Kangwon, North Hamgyong, and South Pyongan Provinces almost complete by midyear. In 1995, North Korea acquired digital Chinese switching equipment for Chongjin, Najin, and Hamhung. Large quantities of new and used telephones from a number of countries increased the number of telephones to 3.7 per 100 persons by 1993.

The current emphasis in the modernization program is on upgrading communications supporting the Najin-Sonbong Free Trade Zone in northeast North Korea. A large communications center at Najin will be the focal point; it will be equipped with digital switching and other modern equipment and will offer modern communication services to businesses operating in the zone. Vastly improved communications between the Free Trade Zone and other countries will include fiber-optic cable and a digital microwave relay link between Pyongyang, Najin, and Vladivostok, with a shorter link between Najin and Hunchun, China. Additional plans for the Free Trade Zone include construction of a satellite earth station, as well as communication center branches, in the zone.

North Korea's military command, control, and communications system consists of extensive hardened wartime command facilities, supported by redundant communication systems, which are believed to be largely separate from systems supporting other sectors. A modernized telecommunications infrastructure will greatly increase the regime's ability to perform both peacetime and wartime management tasks, and as in any country, could provide critical backup for military communication systems if necessary.


North Korea has taken major steps to upgrade its transportation system in support of its industrial and military needs. Infrastructure improvements are ongoing, with rail and highway construction projects progressing rapidly during the past few years. Despite concentrated improvements throughout the transportation network, it has not kept pace with the growth of the industrial base; the network is barely adequate to support increased demands for transporting raw materials and finished products. Conversely, the transportation system can support initial combat operations during wartime. However, the infrastructure would experience numerous difficulties supporting sustained operations. Rugged terrain, limited east-west routes; numerous bridges, tunnels, and other chokepoints; and inferior road surface types would be factors during sustained operations.

Rail and road networks continue to follow a general north-south axis with limited east-west routes, especially in northern areas. Rugged mountainous terrain restricts or channels supply movement to a few routes. Rails carry 90 percent of North Korea's freight and also would be the principal means of moving military equipment and supplies from northern sectors to combat forces in the staging areas. The 5,000-km network is mostly single track. As a part of a network upgrade, North Korea is constructing several rail lines and electrifying additional routes. The network is 70-percent electrified, which has resulted in increased capacity and faster service. A major logistic goal is to electrify all primary rail lines. However, equipment shortages and reprioritization of assets create transport inefficiencies. North Korea has tried to circumvent this through tighter controls and improved management of equipment.

Insufficient roads, poor surfaces, and inadequate maintenance hinder the 30,000-km highway system. Although only 15 percent of the highways are paved, North Korea is reducing its dependency on rails. Three major multilane expressways and other highway construction are among the completed projects. The expressways connect Pyongyang with key military and industrial areas of the country and include a 200-km highway between Pyongyang and Wonsan, a 43-km highway between Pyongyang and the port city of Nampo, and a 100-km highway connecting Pyongyang with Panmunjom. A fourth expressway between Pyongyang and Huichon is nearly complete and will serve key military and POL facilities in the central sectors of the country. Highways are used primarily for short-haul operations; however, during wartime, they would become a strategic asset in the forward area and would supplement rails in the rear areas. Fuel constraints and the lack of private automobiles limit civilian use of highways.

North Korean economic plans include upgrading and expanding several primary maritime ports and opening some to noncommunist shipping. Development of the Najin-Sonbong free economic and trade zone is another upgrade that will promote international trade. The zone is in the northeast, on the borders with Russia and China. It includes the ice-free ports of Sonbong, Najin, and Chongjin, which are scheduled for modernization.

North Korea's 32 ports are not considered critical to short-term military operations. They are used primarily to supplement the inland system and to support domestic production and the fishing industry. The major ports of Chongjin, Najin, Hamhung, Wonsan, and Nampo serve large commercial areas and are near military installations or militarily significant facilities. Should the lines of communication become saturated in wartime, unimpaired ports would be viable for resupply operations.

Civil aviation in North Korea is limited. Regularly scheduled international connections are restricted to flights from Sunan International Airport, north of Pyongyang, to Russia and China. An agreement to begin service with Japan was signed in 1990, establishing irregular flights between Sunan and Tokyo. Domestic flights are limited to a few routes from Sunan to Chongjin, Hamhung, and Wonsan. Although personnel and equipment assigned to civilian flights do not have a direct military function, they could offer limited support during wartime.

North Korea has 24 permanent-surfaced, jet-capable airfields; 27 transport/utility airfields; and at least 16 highway landing strips. The landing strips generally are near military airbases. Improvements, including completion of new forward dispersal airfields and expansion of taxiways and parking aprons, have increased the North's capacity to sustain combat operations.


During the Korean war, lack of adequate logistics hampered North Korea's military forces and kept them from completely controlling the peninsula. After the war, sustainability of its military forces became a primary requirement of the North's military doctrine. Pyongyang continues to implement military doctrine that calls for maintaining war reserves for all classes of supply for 6 months of sustainability for regular forces and 3 months for reserve units and paramilitary forces. A major increase in the number of active forces and the deployment of many new types of weapons in the past 15 years complicate this doctrine. However, North Korea's massive war reserve stockpiles continue to expand despite tremendous cost to its economic structure and hardship to its people. The overall military sustainability required to support its extensive firepower continues to increase.

North Korea is expanding its ammunition, POL, and equipment storage capacities by building additional hardened and underground facilities and enlarging existing facilities. Major national-level storage installations have been built, and construction of unit-level storage depots continues - especially near the DMZ. Current ammunition stockpiles are estimated at over 1 million tons. A million tons of military POL exist, despite the severe shortage of fuel supplies for the civil economy. This amount would be sufficient to run Pyongyang's economy for a substantial part of a year. Substantial food and combat ration war reserves exist, despite major malnourishment in the North.

North Korea has over 200,000 vehicles, 1,000 locomotives, and over 20,000 railcars that are mostly nonmilitary but would be mobilized to support a conflict. Much of this normally nonmilitary transport is tied to reserve force units that would provide a substantial part of the logistic support required by military forces and would move personnel, ammunition, and supplies into the Republic of Korea during a conflict. Truck transportation units would provide a full range of support. Rail assets would provide heavy-lift capacity to move armor, self-propelled artillery, and resupply from national depots. Merchant and fishery vessels would support naval forces and ground troops along the peninsula's coastal waters, and the civil air transport fleet would be mobilized to carry troops and high-value cargo and possibly for aerial delivery of chemical and biological warfare agents.