Update: North Korea launched what appeared to be a new ballistic missile into the Pacific raising concerns in the region and increasing tension with the U.S.
Despite its very modest size geographically and economically, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or more commonly North Korea, has become a major threat to global stability. Among the reasons are the size of its military, its development of advanced missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons, perhaps as far as the West Coast of the United States, and its cyber warfare skills.
Economically, North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its population of about 25 million lives in extreme poverty, with annual estimated per capita income of $1,800, according to the CIA Factbook.
The country’s literacy rate is 100%, and both males and females attend school for 12 years.
The life expectancy in the country is estimated at 70.4 years, comprised of an average of 66.6 years for men and 74.5 years for women. Nearly half (44%) of the population falls in the 25- to 54-year-old age category, and less than 10% of the population is over 65 years old. In the United States, just over 15% of the population is over 65 years old and less than 40% falls in the 25 to 54 age range.
North Korea’s economy is highly dependent on China. About 75% of the country’s $4.15 billion in exports are sent to China, and 76% of its $4.8 billion in imports come from China.
According to the CIA Factbook, North Korea is a source country for men, women and children who are subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Workers are not free to change jobs, and “tens of thousands” of North Koreans, including children, are held in prison camps and subjected to forced, heavy labor.
The country’s capital city is Pyongyang and the executive branch of the DPRK’s government is headed by Kim Jong Un, the grandson of Kim Il Sung and the son of Kim Jong Il, who ruled the country since its founding in 1948. The former has been designated the Eternal President and the latter the Eternal General Secretary. The current premier is Pak Pong Ju, and there are eight vice premiers.
The unicameral legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly, is elected by citizens 17 years of age and older and serves for five-year terms. The Korean Worker’s Party selects all candidates.
The DPRK’s judicial system consists of a Supreme Court, composed of a chief justice and two “people’s assessors.” The judges are elected to five-year terms by the Supreme People’s Assembly. The system includes provincial, municipal, military, special and people’s courts.
Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the DPRK’s total labor force of 14 million works in the industry and services sectors. The remaining 37% work in agriculture. The CIA Factbook notes that unemployment ran to 25.6% in 2013, about equal to the unemployment rate in Greece.
According to a U.S. Defense Department report, over 1 million soldiers serve in the Korean People’s Army. That total includes ground, air, naval, missile and special operations forces. The United States active duty roster in 2015 totaled 1.43 million. The U.S. population of about 320 million is more than 10 times that of the DPRK.
Australia’s News.com.au, in a recent report, noted that North Korea spends as much as 22% of its $40 billion GDP on its military. U.S. defense spending, though much higher at $600 billion, represents about 3.3% of U.S. 2015 GDP of more than $18 trillion.
A report from Global Fire Power estimates that the DPRK’s defense budget is $7.5 billion, ranking it 23rd in the world for military spending. The country’s army includes 5,025 tanks, 4,100 armored fighting vehicles, 2,250 self-propelled guns, 4,300 towed artillery pieces and 2,400 multiple launch rocket systems.
The North Korean air force counts 944 total aircraft, including 458 fighters, 572 fixed-wing attack aircraft, 100 transport aircraft, 169 trainers, 202 helicopters and 20 attack helicopters.
The North Korean navy includes a total strength of 967 vessels, including 438 coastal defense craft, 76 submarines, 25 mine-warfare ships, 11 frigates and two corvettes. The country has no aircraft carriers or destroyers.
The Defense Department report states that North Korea has been an exporter of conventional arms and ballistic missiles for several decades. Weapons sales are a critical source of foreign currency for the country, and it is unlikely to cease export activity in spite of UN Security Council sanctions.
The country’s nuclear capabilities are, of course, the main threat to the United States and its allies. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) and its capital, Seoul, are threatened as well by the massive numbers of artillery and self-propelled guns that can be brought to bear on the south with less than a minute’s notice.
In his New Year’s Day speech, Kim Jong Un said:
Last year an epochal turn was brought about in consolidating the defence capability of Juche [self-reliant] Korea, and our country achieved the status of a nuclear power, a military giant, in the East which no enemy, however formidable, would dare to provoke.
We conducted the first H-bomb test, test-firing of various means of strike and nuclear warhead test successfully to cope with the imperialists’ nuclear war threats, which were growing more wicked day by day, briskly developed state-of-the-art military hardware, and entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile; we achieved other marvellous successes one after another for the consolidation of the defence capability.
Analysts at Stratfor wrote last year:
Pyongyang’s unswerving progress toward developing a nuclear capability reflects the singular obsession with which it chases its goals and why the West takes its threats seriously. … North Korea’s biggest fear is to be coerced into a position of subservience, having to prostrate itself before China (its primary benefactor) or another power country.
U.S. efforts to enlist China in stopping the DPRK’s development of nuclear weapons may stumble on the country’s determination to guarantee its own future.