North Korea: Country and Military by the Numbers

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The summit meeting between the U.S. president and the president of North Korea is set to take place Tuesday, June 12, in Singapore. Both leaders have already arrived in the city-state and the first meeting between the two will occur early Tuesday morning when they meet with only translators present. A negotiation session with staff present is expected to follow.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. North Korean president Kim Jong-un is reportedly scheduled to leave early Tuesday afternoon, which does not leave a lot of time to unravel a confrontation that has lasted more than 60 years. If that is what happens, expect to see a short, vague statement that pushes further detailed discussions between the two sides to some future time.

The central issue for the meeting, from the U.S. point of view, is the denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which U.S. President Donald Trump has maintained must begin now and end with the destruction of any nuclear capability in the North.

The DPRK is not likely to accede to Trump’s demands. The country has been working for more than half a century at enormous expense to develop a nuclear force and the hope that it will just toss all that away is highly unlikely to be realized.

In an interview with NBC, Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies summarized the DPRK’s goal this way:

They want a peace treaty because it validates them as a nuclear weapon state. It ensures that Trump won’t attack because [North Koreans] were worried about an attack last year.

And most importantly, it means money. Not because the United States is going to give money to North Korea, but we are the primary obstacle in places like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, the IMF, where the North Koreans want money.

A U.S. official cited by The Wall Street Journal said that a formal end to the Korean war is “way down the road.” The conflict ended in 1953 with an armistice that remains in place.

Former DPRK deputy ambassador to Britain Thae Yong Ho, who defected in 2016, concurs. In the end, he claims, North Korea will remain “a nuclear power packaged as a non-nuclear state.” Such a conclusion would add the DPRK to a group of countries like India and Pakistan that have developed nuclear weapons capabilities. Israel is believed also to have nuclear weapons but that has never been confirmed or denied by the Israelis or confirmed by any outside source.

While the focus on nuclear weapons gets most of the attention (deservedly), it is worth noting that North Korea’s military is massive in many dimensions. While the country’s conventional forces pose no particular threat to the United States, they are a top concern of the South Koreans and, to lesser degree, the Japanese.

According to a recent report from the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, the DPRK had the fourth-largest military in the world with more than 1.1 million personnel in the country’s armed forces. Others have noted that 6.3 million North Koreans serve in reserve forces. Every North Korean male serves 10 years of military service beginning at the age of 17. Women are conscripted selectively.

According to a 2015 U.S. Department of Defense report and a 2016 South Korean Ministry of National Defense report, the North Korean military has more than 1,300 aircraft, nearly 300 helicopters, 430 combat vessels, 250 amphibious vessels, 70 submarines, 4,300 tanks, 2,500 other armored vehicles, and 5,500 multiple-rocket launchers. Experts also estimate that North Korea has upwards of one thousand missiles of varying ranges.