Forces: North Korea Has Been Measured and Found Wanting


February 8, 2024: A recent survey of national military power ranked South Korea as number five while its belligerent neighbor North Korea came in at 36. This has a lot to do with the economic differences between the two Koreas. The south is democratic and prosperous with a growing arms industry that designs and manufactures modern weapons for itself and export. The South Korean military has half as many men, and some women, in the military. The southerners are better trained, armed, supported, and led.

There are many reasons why the Inmun Gun, as North Korean calls its armed forces, despite its large size of about a million troops is considered relatively ineffective. One of the least talked about, especially in the media, problem is the growing use of bribes within the North Korean armed forces. This begins when young men are conscripted. The growing wealth generated by a recently legalized market economy in the north means there are more middle-class families with enough cash to protect their sons from the most unpleasant forms of military service. For nearly a decade it has been common for conscription officials to accept bribes to get the sons of affluent families into choice jobs in the capital, the internal security service, or anywhere but the combat divisions on the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone that separates north and south. This type of bribery has become so widespread that jobs in the bureaucracy and military dealing with assignments of new conscripts, and thus the people to be bribed, are now being sold to officers who have the most cash. Buying one of these jobs is a good investment, because a lot of money can be made. There is some risk because of occasional crackdowns. If you get caught, life in a labor camp or execution is likely, but so far, the risks appear to be low, and the money is good. It’s gotten to the point where if you pay a large enough bribe to the right people, you can be out of the military within six months with a medical discharge.

Over the last few years, the number of missing conscripts has become obvious, and the solution was not to send a lot of officers in charge of conscription to labor camps, but to try and pressure recent high school graduates and those who had recently completed their ten years of service to voluntarily enlist or reenlist. Birth rates have been declining for years and so has the population of military-age men. Those already in the military are bribing their way out or simply deserting. The calls for voluntary enlistments have largely been ignored.

The North Korean armed forces have lots of other, and older, problems. While nearly every adult male serves at least six years in the military, the big problem is that years of economic problems and failed harvests have left the troops poorly equipped, often hungry, and increasingly insubordinate. With most of the best educated troops bribing their way into any job but one in a combat unit, it is increasingly doubtful if the North Korean combat forces could get very far during an invasion of South Korea.

Despite all that, a lot of North Korean troops are believed to be reliable enough to carry out orders to invade South Korea, for a while at least, and that could end up doing a lot of damage to Seoul, the southern capital where half the population and a quarter of the GDP are. South Koreans have more to lose than the northerners. Sprawling Seoul is 40-50 kilometers from the North Korean border. The city alone is 600 square kilometers, and the suburbs are even larger. There are over 17,000 people per square kilometer in the city. The southerners know the north is desperate and heavily armed. What do you do? South Korea has responded by increasing its ability to quickly halt any rocket and artillery bombardment from the north. This would involve a lot of artillery and smart bomb use in a short time. Many North Korean targets would be destroyed but the south has much more to lose, even if the northern attack is cut short.

The North Korean Army currently has about 800,000 troops, over 3,000 tanks, 3,000 other AFV, or armored fighting vehicles for infantry, and nearly 8,000 artillery pieces, including 2,000 rocket launchers. Most of these weapons are pointed south and stationed on or near the DMZ. North Korea has the means to be dangerous, for a little while anyway. Fuel shortages, elderly equipment and lack of maintenance means that a lot of this gear would not stay operational for long. As an example, the past 25 years or so of deferred maintenance, as in none on tube artillery pieces including the guns on tanks, means almost all of those can only fire one round because their recuperator seals have deteriorated so much.

North Korea has two armored divisions, 12 motorized infantry and 23 non-motorized infantry divisions used only for static defense along the DMZ. These troops also serve as border guards to prevent civilians or soldiers from leaving the country via the DMZ. A growing number of North Korean troops stationed on the DMZ are deserting via the DMZ. There are supposed to be lots of landmines in the DMZ, but many have been removed or otherwise become inoperable over the years and not replaced. This was noticed as more North Korean soldiers came across the DMZ at night and often had to find a South Korean military border post or civilian home further south so they could announce they were defecting. When this started happening several years ago it became a scandal because the DMZ was supposed to be well guarded.

Most of the best educated North Korean troops are in the rear areas, where their parents, bribes and instinct for self-preservation put them. The troops along the DMZ know this and are expected to lose some of their enthusiasm as a result. A growing number of North Korean refugees arriving in South Korea, who served along the northern side of the DMZ, confirm all this. They also confirm that the growing culture of corruption in the military leadership and bureaucracy is seeing more and more of the food and fuel meant for front line troops diverted by corrupt officers and sold in the markets. No wonder so many parents are willing to pay bribes to make sure their kids never get assigned to one of those units.




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