North Korea’s Conventional Forces What Are Their Capabilities?

While we regularly hear about North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapon programs, we rarely hear anything about their conventional armed forces.  An analysis by the U.S. Department of Defense helps shed some light on the hermit kingdom’s military capabilities.

By way of introduction, out of 133 nations considered to be military powers, Global Firepower puts North Korea in 23rd place globally with the following manpower potential:

1.) Ground Forces:

Let’s open with this map showing the locations and types of North Korea’s ground forces:

The Korean People’s Army (KPA) ground forces consist primarily of regular and light infantry units are located in forward-deployed and fortified facilities, thousands of which are underground.  These forces are supported by armour and heavy artillery and have both long-range cannons and rocket artillery that can reach South Korea’s capital, Seoul.

The KPA’s artillery force includes 170-mm guns and 240-mm multiple rocket launchers (MRLs), many of which are located along the demilitarized zone which separates North and South Korea.  Here is a video showing North Korea’s latest installations of multiple rocket launchers located on an island in the West Sea region located along the west coast of the Korean Peninsula:

Here is a video from North Korean television from 2016 showing the nation’s artillery and rocket capabilities:

In October 2015, North Korea unveiled the latest iteration of its multiple rocket launcher, a large calibre MRL that has eight rocket tubes on a wheeled chassis, showing that, despite its grinding poverty and limited funding, the DPRK still has the ability to produce and upgrade its ground forces.

2.) Air Forces:

Here is summary of North Korea’s air power capabilities:

Here is a map showing the locations of North Korea’s air force bases:

The North Korean Air Force (NKAF) has an estimated fleet of more than 1,300 aircraft, most of which are Soviet-era models.  Since much of its current air fleet is technologically less capable than its adversaries,  North Korea relies heavily on both surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery to protect its airspace.  Its most capable combat aircraft are MiG-29s that it acquired from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s as well as its MiG-23s and SU-25 ground-attack aircraft.  The NKAF also has a fleet of several hundred helicopters (contradicts the numbers used by Global Firepower) which could be used for both ground attacks and troop transportation; the fleet even has some U.S. manufactured MD-500 helicopters.

The NKAF is also developing a series of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a program that has been in place since the late1980s when North Korea acquired its first UAV from China.  The nation’s largest drone is said to be derived from a U.S.-made Beechcraft MQM-107D Streaker which was likely acquired from Syria or Egypt.  Here is another North Korean drone that crashed on the island of Baengnyeon-do, 201 kilometres northwest of Seoul, which resembles a miniature aircraft:

This UAV was equipped with onboard GPS and was autonomous, programmed to return to the North Korean airfield from which it was launched.  It flew at an altitude of 3000 metres, above the effective range of South Korea’s Vulcan air defense weapons.  It eventually crashed due to engine failure after a flight of 105 kilometres.  

Here is a photograph of a North Korean UAV taken during a July 2013 military parade:

3.) Navy

Here is a map showing the locations of North Korea’s naval bases:

The North Korean Navy (NKN) is the smallest of North Korea’s armed services and is divided into two fleets, one for each of the east and west coasts.  The NKN has one of the world’s largest fleets of submarines with a total of roughly 70 attack-, coastal-, and midget-submarines.  Here is a brief video showing North Korea’s submarine capabilities:

The NKN also has a coastal force that is made up of small patrol craft armed with a variety of anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes.  It also has a fleet of hovercraft and conventional landing craft that could be used to support an invasion.

4.) Special Forces:

North Korea’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) are among the most highly trained and motivated forces in the Korean People’s Army.  Given the relative capability gap of the KPA when compared to the United States, it appears that North Korea regards the SOF as vital since they are capable of launching rapid defensive operations against foreign attacks or as a force to attack South Korea’s vulnerable targets.  Special Operations Forces are moved by air, navy and by foot and can also travel through the network of tunnels that cross the demilitarized zone.  Here is a video showing the North Korean tunnel (3rd Infiltration Tunnel) which would have been used to infiltrate South Korea:

As you can see, while North Korea may not have the military might to defeat a coalition of forces led by the United States, it is apparent that their current military strength could lead to a long war of attrition would be very costly in terms of men and materiel for both sides of any conflict.  But then again, it’s war that keeps the the global military-industrial complex swimming in profits.

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