1. It’s the fifth-largest military in the world…
No country on Earth is as thoroughly militarized as North Korea. Out of a population of 24 million — slightly fewer than the state of Texas — North Korea fields over 1.1 million active-duty personnel and 4.5 million in reserve. Roughly 387 out of every 1000 citizens serves in the Korean People’s Army or one of its paramilitary branches, compared to only 5 out of every 1000 Americans serving in the United States armed forces. Per capita, North Korean militarization would be equivalent to the United States fielding an inconceivable 112 million personnel in its armed forces.
2. …but its equipment is mostly obsolete and under-fueled.
Although North Korea’s military looks strong on paper and in annual parades like the one shown above, its real-world fighting capabilities are much more constrained. South Korea’s defense ministry estimates that the North has about 820 fighter jets, but not enough fuel to conduct drills or even patrol its own airspace. North Korea’s air defenses, considered to be the densest in the world, are also hopelessly antiquated against modern U.S. and South Korean aircraft.
North Korea’s tanks wouldn’t fare much better. They outnumber South Korean tanks almost two-to-one, but any sustained conflict would favor the South’s modern armor over the North’s obsolete Soviet models. And, as with its air force, the economically-isolated regime lacks the fuel reserves to operate all of its armored divisions at full strength for long periods of time.
3. Their navy is in even worse shape.
Don’t let Kim Jong-un’s smile fool you: North Korea’s navy is aging, decrepit, and unable to match South Korea or the United States on the open seas. The regime’s naval forces include a dozen surface warships, around 70 diesel-powered submarines and smaller miniature submarines, and hundreds of smaller patrol boats, minesweepers, amphibious ships, and torpedo craft. North Korean naval strategy emphasizes hit-and-run tactics against enemy coastal defenses and special forces insertions on the South Korean side of the DMZ.
Although their submarines are smaller and have less range than those currently used by the American, Russian, and European navies, they can still be effective: one allegedly sank the South Korean gunboat Cheonan in 2010. Unlike most submarines in navies around the world, however, North Korean submarines lack the ability to launch missiles at land-based targets.
4. North Korea does have a lot of artillery, though…
North Korea’s army includes the world’s largest artillery force, with over 13,000 artillery pieces deployed across its border with the South. Pyongyang’s not afraid to use it either: in November 2010, a Northern artillery barrage devastated the border island of Yeonpyeong with only 170 shells, killing two South Korean marines and provoking widespread international condemnation. Most of North Korea’s heavier artillery could also be used to deliver the chemical and biological weapons that the regime is widely assumed to possess.
5. …and most of it is targeting South Korea’s capital.
Seoul, which sits only 25 miles (40 km) from the Korean Demilitarized Zone, has lived in the shadow of Pyongyang’s threats for over sixty years. Should the North besiege the Korean peninsula’s largest city, Seoul’s residents could seek shelter in one of the 3,919 underground shelters built by the South Korean government designed to protect 20 million people — over twice the city’s current population.
Although South Korean and U.S. counter-strikes would rapidly reduce the North’s ability to bombard Seoul, even conservative estimates suggest tens of thousands of civilians could die in the opening salvos — a powerful deterrent against any pre-emptive strike by U.S. and South Korean forces.
6. They’re also armed with nuclear weapons…
James Bond’s best villains threatened the world with nuclear annihilation, and this one is no different. North Korea first successfully tested a nuclear weapon in 2006 and carried out further detonations in 2009 and earlier this year. Although exact numbers are unknown, North Korea is estimated to have enough fissile material for a dozen nuclear weapons right now, with an arsenal of between 25 and 48 nuclear weapons possible by 2015.
Although nuclear weapons are always horrific, those detonated so far by North Korea have been relatively weak: the device tested two months ago was only equivalent to about 10 kilotons of TNT. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, by comparison, was about 16 kilotons; the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested, the Soviet Union’s “Tsar Bomba”, was about 50 megatons, or an astounding 50,000 kilotons. The Tsar Bomba’s fireball alone would have incinerated Manhattan; North Korea’s most powerful known nuclear weapon, if dropped on the Empire State Building, wouldn’t even reach Central Park.
7. …but they might not be able to launch them very far.
This map shows the estimated range of various missiles in North Korea’s arsenal. Whether those missiles can really reach those distances (and reach them accurately) is an open question. North Korea’s most recent long-range missile test last April failed spectacularly.
It’s widely assumed that the regime could currently equip missiles capable of striking South Korea and Japan with a nuclear warhead, although Pyongyang recently threatened nuclear strikes against Guam, Hawaii, and the American mainland as well. These targets, most analysts conclude, are beyond North Korea’s reach — for now.