Scary Facts About the North Korean Military

The North Korean military is one of the largest in the world, featuring over one million active duty soldiers, millions of reservists and paramilitary members, and thousands of tanks. It spends anywhere from a quarter to a third of its budget on its armed forces, and has developed a nuclear weapons arsenal, along with chemical weapons, and even lasers.

But the North Korean army is also a teetering, obsolete, 20th-century force. Their tanks, planes, and submarines are mostly of the Cold War variety. Its nukes are weak, its soldiers hungry, and its leadership uncoordinated and subservient to a dictator with no military experience. Even with all that, though, the DPRK's military has scary capabilities - enough that the US is constantly planning for how to defeat it.

Here are some of the most frightening aspects of North Korea's massive military.
Photo: Metaweb / GNU Free Documentation License

  • North Korea Has the Biggest Military Per Capita in the World

    North Korea Has the Biggest Military Per Capita in the World
    Photo: James Mossman / Wikimedia Commons
    Thought to have about 1.2 million active duty military members, North Korea has 47.8 per 1000 population members - the highest rate of any country in the world. This is ten times higher than the US.
  • It Has a Huge Paramilitary Force

    It Has a Huge Paramilitary Force
    Photo: Roman Harak / Wikimedia Commons
    The numbers are hard to pin down, but it's thought that North Korea has anywhere between 1.5 and 6 million trained reservists in its Workers and Peasants Militia, most of whom are ready to pick up arms and fight if the country went to war. With mandatory conscription, nearly every male in the North has at least some kind of training, and could be called upon to serve as cannon fodder, even if they aren't still serving. It also has tens of thousands of military police, mostly in Pyongyang.
  • The North Has Its Own Hitler Youth

    The North Has Its Own Hitler Youth
    Photo: Tobias Nagel / National Geographic
    No dictatorship is complete without exploitation of child soldiers. So it goes in North Korea, where the Young Red Guards (sometimes called the Red Youth Guard) serve as the youth arm of its organized paramilitary force. Created in 1970, the Young Red Guards are males age 15-17, who go through 10-15 days of military and survival during the summer to prepare them for conscription at age 18. Naturally, they must provide their own food and uniforms.
  • The US Plan to Beat North Korea is Constantly Evolving

    The US Plan to Beat North Korea is Constantly Evolving
    Video: YouTube

    The US strategy to fight alongside South Korea and defeat an invasion by the North is called OPLAN 5027. It was developed in the early '70s and revised constantly, as the North's threat capabilities evolve. Versions of the plan usually involve the ROK and US defeating a DPRK invasion at a defensive line about 20-30 miles deep into South Korea, but still north of Seoul. It also incorporates the North's nuclear, biological, and cyber abilities, while leaving enough forces to prevent Seoul from being bombarded. During the Bush years, OPLAN 5027 focused more on offensive warfare, and has reportedly been rewritten again since then. 

    The two countries also have a plan for a sudden collapse of the Kim regime, called OPLAN 5029; as well as a separate plan for a preemptive strike against the North, called OPLAN 5015. Little is known about either of these plans.
  • Nobody Knows Exactly How Much They Spend on their Military

    Nobody Knows Exactly How Much They Spend on their Military
    Photo: YouTube
    The North Korean policy of songun puts the military first above all other governmental functions. This means money is funneled to the army while the people prepare for famine. How much money is it? There's no agreed-upon figure. The North Korean state news claims it's 15.8% of the country's budget, but other estimates range from 25% to as high as 38%. While the country is in constant financial difficulty, no thought has been given to reducing military spending.
  • Nuclear Suicide Bombers?

    Nuclear Suicide Bombers?

    In 2013, the world threw up in its mouth a bit at the sight of columns of North Korean soldiers carrying backpacks with the international symbol for nuclear power on them. Earlier intelligence indicated that the North was developing a "backpack bomb" unit, and people put two and two together and freaked out. Did the North really have miniaturized, man-portable nukes?

    No, they didn't. Not only does this technology far exceed what Kim Jong-un's kingdom is capable of, but defectors reassured the west that the backpacks were just for show. They were likely stuffed either with hazmat suits, or even more likely, rags.