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I am a bit of an amateur North Korea enthusiast. I first started to get seriously invested in the country back in around 2012, when I really started reading news articles and delving into firsthand reports about the weird, dystopian police state on the other side of the globe. For awhile, I sort of drifted away from studying North Korea, but in late 2014 I found, purchased and read the book Without You There Is No Us, a tell-all firsthand account of a Korean-American woman who traveled to North Korea under the guise of a teacher/Christian missionary and lived among some of the North Korean regime's military elite.
It's an amazing book and a very interesting story, I will include a link to it at the end of this essay (I consider it, and several other books, required reading for anyone studying North Korea). After reading this book, I became doubly re-invested in studying North Korea, and have since put hundreds of hours of personal study into the subject.
I will try to cite as many sources as I can (you will find links at the end of the article). I am no absolute master on North Korea, despite how much I strive to learn and know about the country. Still, I hope you can read this and at least take something away from it, even if it's only your own hunt for facts and the truth. I will bold important segments, so feel free to skim around and read what interests you.
North Korea's Military is nowhere near as large or as powerful as a lot of western numbers cite.
This is one of the biggest misnomers that a lot of media outlets report on, primarily because it's a good way to bring in viewers since it makes such a nice and scary headline. The North Korean military, which refers to itself as the Korean People's Army or the KPA, has about 900,000 to 1.2 million active military personnel at any given time (Depending on which source you believe. Most official sources of KPA numbers come directly from the KPA itself, or old data gathered by China).
There is also the Worker-Peasant Red Guard, which is basically North Korea's version of a National Guard. There are around 3.5 to 5 million active personnel in this Red Guard, a number that exploded back in 2010 when the Regime made military conscription mandatory for both men and women once they turn 17.
The KPA has a standard five branches of military, with a Ground Forces, Navy, Air Force, Special Forces as well as their infamous Rocket Forces division. The Red Guard isn't officially counted as a branch of their military. Conscription into both the Red Guard and the KPA itself is mandatory, something that has artificially inflated the size of their military. In reality, the number of troops that are actually fit for service is greatly lower than official numbers.
No one can be sure of what the real numbers are, but what we do know is that a large observable majority of KPA soldiers are tasked with physical labor across the country. They clear trees and build/demolish roads. Many of them do not have proper equipment and it's known that guns are in short supply and that not every KPA soldier has one. Most presentable (i.e., presentable to foreign guests who are lead-around on tight leashes by guides) military strength is centered around the city of Pyongyang, the country's capital. The bulk of the KPA ground forces and artillery sits along the Demilitarized-Zone (DMZ) border of North and South Korea.
North Korea's Military is not weak, nor is it a pushover.
Two of the biggest things people tend to believe about North Korea are either that the country has an unstoppable military of brainwashed zealots, or contrary to that, that their military is weak and would be no problem for America to crush if we ever went to war with North Korea. Neither of these things are true.
To truly understand the KPA, you have to examine the Regime (or the North Korean government). The KPA is the Regime's most important tool, because it allows North Korea's rulers to stay in power. Not only that, but it is also crucial for each individual member of the Regime (including Kim Jong-un himself) to control influence within the KPA.
Blind loyalty is the most important trait Kim Jong-un could look for in someone, but unfortunately there's not much of that in North Korea. What soldiers in the KPA are primarily loyal to is food. Top-brass and decorated servicemen are the stereotypical "zealots devoted to their Glorious Leader," but the overwhelming majority of the KPA follow the one who gives them their food.
In fact, there are people in North Korea who are secretly stockpiling thousands of tons of rice in big-ass grain silos, specifically so they can buy influence within the KPA. Having too much food in North Korea is something that can get you executed by the Regime. The military is split into who knows how many splinter-factions, and there have been at least two major purges of military rule since Kim Jong-un assumed power.
These purges, used to consolidate power and remove potential rivals, created power vacuums that have been filled by largely unknown people. The Regime purges are a problem, because Kim Jong-un has removed predictable and well-known military leaders and replaced them with new leaders who aren't as well known as their predecessors.
So, the notion that North Koreans are all insane fanatics who think their ruler is a God on earth is fairly wrong. It depends on where you go in North Korea and who you talk to. People living in cities, especially Pyongyang, revere (and fear) the Regime much more than people living in rural cities or small towns. There are thousands of people who are fanatical to the Regime however, and many people are brainwashed, but it's a significantly smaller number than the west usually quips. Most people in North Korea are more concerned with not starving than they are with bowing down to a Regime.
Still, North Korea has a pretty sizable military. Even if we assume that only one-fourth of their active troops are ready for combat (which is a conservatively low estimate), that's still around 300,000-odd soldiers, which is a force significant enough to defend against an invasion.
North Korea maintains a note-worthy navy of around 90 to 100 submarines (according to remote surveillance). Their fleet of ships is a little less impressive, only numbering upwards of a few hundred vessels (the bulk of that number being low-grade torpedo boats). It also doesn't help North Korea's case when you consider how many of their boats might not even be fit for service, let alone functioning at all.
Most of what we know about North Korea's submarine fleet comes from sonar recordings taken around North Korea's waters. North Korea has rarely ever piloted their subs into international waters, but just recently it was reported that two subs that may have been North Korean vessels were briefly located within the seas of Japan. This would mark the farthest known trek of North Korean subs outside of their own waters.
What we know about their fleet of ships comes from satellite photographs taken of their ports and naval bases. When it comes to monitoring their submarines, we know our recordings are accurate because any submarine that is deployed and active in the water is a submarine that works. With ships, however, North Korea is known to simply float 'gutted' vessels in the water (there is currently one known gutted floater at the moment and several more are rumored or suspected to be gutted as well) in order to make their navy look larger (they know we're taking pictures of them, after all).
Because of their penchant for floating these 'gutted' vessels, it's not well known what their true ship fleet is like. They have many torpedo boats and at least several frigates and corvette vessels, however, and could likely defend their own waters for a good period of time.
Unlike in the Ground Forces or Red Guard, however, North Korean naval soldiers spend a longer time in forced conscription. This results in a much, much lower number of active servicemen (only about 60,000 estimated personnel), but also a more experienced and well-equipped force.
The North Korean Air Force (KPAF) is probably the least well understood branch of their military. With around 1,000-ish planes and around 100,000 personnel, it's a rather large air force, but it's likely not very well-trained.
No one is sure just how long the average KPAF pilot spends in the air per year. All signs, however, suggest that pilots spend very little time actually flying aircraft (as low as 10-15 hours per year, almost 10 times less than the modern average of 150 hours a year that most other military countries have). There are no well-known elite pilots in the KPAF, though there are probably at least a few who receive significantly more air-time hours and pilot the force's more modern aircraft. The Air Force is easily the weakest branch of the military and would pose the least amount of threat, despite its size.
North Korea can not invade another country. Please never believe anyone who tells you that North Korea would invade anyone. First of all, the only countries North Korea could actually invade are China, Russia and South Korea. North Korea could never invade China or Russia (and why would they?), and an invasion of South Korea would end very poorly, as North Korea's invading force would have to first fight across the DMZ line, which is where most of their numbers would die.
They lack the food or long-range resources to support an invasion effort, forget their lack of manpower and air power. This doesn't mean that invading North Korea would be easy, though. Their standing forces are significant enough to defend their own land and an invasion of North Korea would probably look a lot like a second Vietnam. Or, more accurately than that, a second Korean war.
North Korea, due to natural deaths and Regime purges, has very few commanding officers with any active experience in military engagements. Since the end of the Korean war, North Korea has been involved in only a handful of military operations, with no significant altercations in the last 20-so years. It's unknown what the current Korean Army's military leadership is like when it comes to experience, though it is assuredly very low.
What would an invasion of North Korea look like?
Assuming someone (likely the USA) would ever invade North Korea (probably not), it would be a very prolonged and messy engagement that would cost millions of lives. First of all, there's only one route into North Korea by land: South Korea. An invasion force that isn't Russia or China would never be able to invade North Korea from the North; Russia and China would never allow a foreign military force into pass through their countries. So we'd be invading from South Korea.
The USA currently has around 12,000-23,000 deployed soldiers active in South Korea. That's quite a lot of men, but it's not a significant enough force to launch an invasion on North Korea. So, we'd have to ferry in millions of troops, vehicles, artillery, supplies and other things across the ocean and into South Korea. North Korea would obviously be able to see us doing this, which means they'd more than likely make the first strike.
If they truly believed that the USA was going to invade, they'd probably begin threatening nuclear strikes on South Korea (which they'd almost assuredly never carry out). When that doesn't work, they'd begin firing conventional weaponry and artillery across the DMZ and into South Korea. Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans would likely die in these initial strikes (it depends on how well evacuated major metro areas are; there are more people living in the Seoul metro area alone than there are living in the entirety of North Korea). North Korea would continue firing into South Korea in an attempt to force the invasion to halt.
Thousands of men would die at the DMZ. In fact, invaders may never even fully breach the DMZ and the majority of the war could very well happen around the North/South border. If the DMZ is breached, then it would be on to the handful of significant cities and military installments with Pyongyang as the finish line. The invading forces would be met with extreme resistance, as the KPA unifies itself against a common enemy.
The millions of Red Guard soldiers would be firmly entrenched in every city and village on the road to Pyongyang, and many invading soldiers would lose their lives to surprise suicide bombers and guerrilla warfare by locals who see the invaders not as liberators, but as aggressive foreign invaders. An invasion of North Korea would probably be almost as wasteful and certainly as pointless as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would likely end the same way too, in some kind of weird stalemate that sees both sides losing. We would certainly not barrel into North Korea, obliterating them with ease. That's a load of bullshit.
Invading North Korea would also trigger one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in history. Not only would Seoul and its metro area be bombed with thousands of tons of artillery and chemical weapons, but you'd have millions of North Korean civilians (and soldiers) attempting the flee the country. Many would try to flee into China, creating a migrant crisis. Some fewer would attempt to cross the Tumen river into Russia (North Korea shares a small part of its northern border with Russia). Who knows what Russia's global response to this would be. Many others would try to cross into South Korea, going across the DMZ (where fighting would be heaviest).
There is nothing to be gained in invading North Korea.
What does the North Korean Regime look like?
The Regime is an unstable mess. Contrary, once again, to the western belief that Jong-un is treated like a god; Jong-un actually barely ascended into power after his father's death. Jong-un's primary method of gaining and maintaining his position in the Regime has been to use those most loyal to him to obtain political leverage... and then execute them later. Jong-un has possibly executed or imprisoned more political rivals in the last three to four years than his father and grandfather's regimes ever did combined.
To illustrate this point a little bit: A man known as Hyon Yong-chol was a vice-marshal of the North Korean military (I believe one of the highest ranks in their military? I'm not very up to snuff on knowing much about their rank system) and was appointed to the position by Kim Jong-un. The reason Hyon was promoted to vice-marshal? He was loyal to Jong-un and not to the military. Because the North Korean military is unstable and is a political force of its own right, which is why its top leaders are constantly purged.
Hyon was removed from his post in 2015 and executed with a fucking anti-aircraft gun. This goes back into what I often say; Jong-un's main strategy for ruling is to use those most loyal to him to cement his position and then consolidate power via executing the same people who helped him climb to the top. I'm not even sure who replaced Hyon, if anyone. Wikipedia has a partial list of known vice-marshals, but it's made from choppy sources and no one can really be sure how much of the information is accurate.
A few years back, if you tuned into the radio at all, you probably heard a lot of stories about Jong-un's aunt and uncle, who were instrumental to Jong-un's ascension to power. What happened to them after they helped him solidify his power? Well, his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was executed in 2013 under grounds of conspiracy against the Regime (some convoluted business involving 's desire to reform the country's trade economy). The aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, has been missing from the public for years now and is presumed either imprisoned or also dead. Kim Kyong-hui was Jong-un's aunt on his father's side. Song-Thaek's immediate and extended family were also purged and executed.
Jong-un's aunt and uncle from his mother's side fled the country when Jong-un's mother, Kim Yong-hui, died back in 2004. They fled the country because they were about to be seen as floating, unaffiliated spheres of influence and would have likely been executed for it.
The Regime is a fucking mess. Most of the sons of its surviving ruling elite are largely brainwashed. They believe North Korea is the most powerful country on the planet and all the other goofy nonsense you hear North Koreans believe. The next generation of Regime elites are going to be drones, heavily loyal to Kim Jong-un and his successor (if there even is a successor).
Kim Jong-un is not an idiot, nor is he ignorant.
Kim Jong-un was raised and educated across Europe (primarily in Switzerland). He is 100 percent aware of what the outside world is like and he understands North Korea's position. He is not a madman. He does not think he is a god. He is aware of how vulnerable he is, and this reflects in his behavior. He purges his closest allies and his furthest enemies all the time, usually having their entire families wiped out as well. To paint Kim Jong-un as an insane person who thinks he is a god is obscene western ignorance.
So why does North Korea keep threatening us with nukes?
Kim Jong-un probably doesn't really give a shit about the USA. What he does give a shit about, however, is looking weak to his own Regime. He has to appear as if he's strong enough to wrestle foreign powers into submission. If Jong-un seems like he's unable to maintain power, he will be ousted and executed himself. If you think this would be a good outcome and you'd like to see it happen, you are wrong.
If Jong-un were potentially ousted, a massive power vacuum would immediately be created. This power vacuum, assuming there are no likely candidates to assume immediate enough power, may likely be the end of the Regime. However, assuming some unknown leader takes power and controls the Regime, we could very well end up dealing with an actual madman. Who is to say what kind of potential nut-job might replace Jong-un? Maybe someone stupid enough to employ nuclear weapons against South Korea (in the form of impromptu dirty bombs). Maybe someone stupid enough to actually try invading South Korea. Who knows? Jong-un is predictable and concerned for his well-being. We want him in power as long as possible, until the Regime eventually resolves itself.
The Regime resolves itself? Is that likely?
I personally believe it's the most likely outcome to the end of North Korea. North Korea is starving, its population isn't replacing itself fast enough, there's a good chance that Jong-un will be the end of his line and the Regime's future seems bleak (with so many of its old-time veterans now executed or sent to prison camps and its newest generation of elite citizens having grown up as sheltered puppets who will be unfit to interact with the outside world). We don't need to invade North Korea or fight the Regime. The Regime is going to fail eventually because it simply doesn't have the power to keep going on.
Other regimes similar to the North Korean Regime have ended up facing a similar type of fate. By all accounts, North Korea seems to be heading into its own end. It's only a matter of generations until this happens (at least, so I believe). Still, the fall of the Regime will probably be the start of new problems.
Who is to say that China or Russia would allow a re-unified Korea? Could we see a possible Cold War-era shadow government assume control in North Korea, backed by the Chinese or the Russians? What stipulations would either country face the USA with when it comes to allowing the two Koreas to recombine? This is the toughest and vaguest question to answer, but time will eventually tell either way. Until North Korea is absolved and South Korea regains control of the entire country (which is the final solution), the people in North Korea will continue to suffer under an oppressive and unstable Regime. They will starve through the year, freeze in the winter, swelter in the summer and die from contaminated drinking water. All for a man, Kim Jong-un and the Regime, that they don't really give a fuck about.
Anyways, that's about all I can think of at the moment. I know it's a long read, but hopefully if you took the time to comb it, you've learned something. Please understand that my knowledge of North Korea is not definite.
For further reading, check out some sources on North Korea;
Amazing candid photographs of North Korea (various lists),
Great non-fiction books written about North Korea,
Without You There Is No Us, By Suki Kim; https://www.amazon.com/dp/0307720667/?tag=writingfor07a-20
Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick; https://www.amazon.com/dp/0385523912/?tag=writingfor07a-20
Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden; https://www.amazon.com/dp/0143122916/?tag=writingfor07a-20
Suki Kim, author of one of the above books, did an amazing AMA on Reddit back in June. It is absolutely worth reading; https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/6g2l5s/i_am_suki_kim_an_undercover_journalist_who_taught/