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Inside North Korea

Military of N. Korea



In South Korea, military service is a constitutional duty, along with taxes, education and labor. Accordingly, all able-bodied South Korean men over the age of 18 must serve in the military. So then, what is the military system like in North Korea? Today, we’ll learn about North Korea’s military with Professor Cha Mun-seok at the Institute for Unification Education. 

The North Korean military started from security forces that were created in October 1945 during the Soviet Union’s occupation of the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. The Soviet military authorities set up the Pyongyang Academy to educate political and military officers. It also formed a separate military unit in 1946 to supervise existing security forces. The military organizations were recreated as the Korean People’s Army on February 8, 1948. The military’s role is to carry out the orders of the top leader and the party.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc in Eastern Europe, North Korea experienced extreme economic difficulties in the 1990s. In the process, the status of the North Korean military was reinforced further

The Korean People’s Army—the armed forces of North Korea—was founded in February 1948, seven months before the North Korean government was established on September 9th. Afterwards, the military consolidated its position and status. 

After the Cold War ended, North Korea suffered from a period of severe economic contraction known as the “Arduous March” in the mid-1990s. In 1995, then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il adopted “songun or “military-first politics” as an ideological priority for the country. A strong military was an important means through which the North Korean regime could maintain its grip on power in the midst of uncertainty and instability. Consequently, North Korea’s military became even more powerful under former leader Kim Jong-il. All resources were mobilized for military use.

For soldiers in North Korea, their military career lasts for quite some time.

Like in South Korea, all able-bodied men in North Korea should perform compulsory military service. North Korea maintains substantial armed forces - 1.28 million troops as of December 2018. This includes a ground force of 1.1 million, a navy of 60-thousand, an air force of 110-thousand and the newly-organized strategic forces, made up of 10-thousand troops. All together, North Korea’s military accounts for some 5 percent of the country’s total population. In South Korea, in comparison, active troops make up only about 1 percent of its total population. 

Before 1993, North Korean soldiers are known to have served in the military for five to 8 years on average. After 1993, conscription was extended to ten years, and this length of time was codified in March 2003. The term of obligatory service for female draftees is three years, but it could extend to seven years. Members of Special Forces like the light infantry unit and the sniper unit are known to do their military service for 13 years

According to the Military Manpower Administration in South Korea, 16 countries including China, Switzerland and Israel have compulsory military service policies. Among them, North Korea has the longest conscription period of 10 years. Regarding draft age, all North Korean men aged 14 and older are eligble for conscription, while those over the age of 60 are eligible for discharge.

But political prisoners and those in the hostile class - North Korea’s lowest rung in its rigid caste system - are excluded from conscription. Talented students at prestigious schools of art or natural science as well as skilled workers in particular industrial fields are also exempt from the draft.

In general, registering for conscription takes place at the age of 14. Two rounds of physical examination are conducted to ensure that the conscripts meet the minimum physical requirements of being at least 148 centimeters tall and weighing 43 kilograms. If deemed physically fit, North Korean men are required to join the military at 17, typically after graduating from high school. They are assigned to military units decided by the state. 

North Korean conscripts are not allowed to choose where they serve or in what capacity. Regional military mobilization departments screen draftees and decide where they will be stationed. 

It’s been said that conscripts prefer to serve in the navy because the navy is known for sufficient rations and better treatment, compared to the other branches of the military. Moreover, the navy offers many technical jobs, which do not require rigorous physical training. It comes as no surprise that many attempt to bribe the mobilization departments so as to be assigned to the navy. Border garrisons, the air force or units deployed in Pyongyang are also preferred choices.

On the other hand, it has been reported that serving as a personal guard to leader Kim Jong-un is undesirable, because even a minor slip-up may jeopardize the safety of themselves and their family. Engineering and construction units are also shunned, as rations there are meager and the intensive work often results in injuries or even death. 

Children of the political elite are usually positioned in the Pyongyang Defense Command, the Ministry of People’s Security or the truce village of Panmunjom where they get receive sufficient rations and lead relatively comfortable lives. 

Those from less privileged backgrounds often give bribes worth hundreds of dollars or more to avoid being sent to less than desirable posts in the military. Indeed, many North Koreans try to navigate around their state-assigned roles.

North Korean military units enforce strict regulations. Those who violate the rules are put at a disadvantage, regardless of their rank and station, not only during but after service. During an enlistment, a 15-day leave is allowed once a year, and soldiers can take 10 to 15 days off on special occasions such as award ceremonies, weddings or funerals. In most cases, however, the vacation system exists in name only. Moreover, North Korean soldiers allocate as much as half of their service period to various labor duties unrelated to the military, such as farming and construction. Due to food shortages and economic hardships, soldiers have to secure food on their own, although some rations are provided.

During the ten-year service period, North Korean soldiers receive intensive military training and are often mobilized for labor campaigns. However, they can’t take a leave of absence easily and food rations are inconsistent. Decades ago, North Korean troops were provided with three meals a day, with each meal consisting of a bowl of white rice and a few side dishes. 

But after the food situation began to worsen in the 1990s, some soldiers weren’t given any food at all, leading to crime such as robbery and theft of food items. In general, however, North Korean men believe it is right and natural that they should serve in the military. This sense of duty forms the basis of the North Korean military. 

According to the 2018 defense white paper, North Korea’s active-duty troops and its strategic weapons outnumber South Korea’s. In particular, the paper noted that North Korea has advanced its nuclear capabilities through six nuclear tests. It also said that the North has developed or possesses 14 different types of ballistic missiles of various ranges, including an intercontinental one. According to another metric, North Korea came in 23rd in the world in terms of overall military strength, while South Korea ranked 11th.

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