North Korea: The Foundations for Military Strength -- Update 1995
December 1995


In 1991, the Defense Intelligence Agency published the document North Korea: The Foundations for Military Strength. That document noted that North Korea, despite an extremely closed, tightly controlled, and isolated government and economic system, fielded a very large, capable military with older but still lethal military equipment. Since that time, a number of new factors, along with the continuation of trends observed at that time, have altered the larger political and economic context. These factors include the death of Kim Il-song, the end of the Cold War, increased international isolation, economic decline, and the Agreed Framework with the United States.

The most significant event since the 1991 publication was the death of President Kim Il-song on 8 July 1994. While Kim Chong-il has not officially assumed the positions held by his father - President of North Korea and Secretary General of the Korean Workers' Party - he in fact remains the supreme leader and ultimate decisionmaker in North Korea.

The October 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea concerning the North's nuclear program focused on the looming nuclear threat; however, Pyongyang still possesses a large conventional military force and continues to pursue an ambitious ballistic missile program. Questions remain about North Korea's development of weapons of mass destruction, especially its past ability to acquire nuclear weapon capabilities. The more immediate threat to the region, however, remains its large conventional forces.

North Korea devotes a substantial amount of national resources to its formidable armed forces, while the underdeveloped and now deteriorating civilian sector bears the burden of this national emphasis on military strength. Internal hardship has not discouraged North Korean leaders from fielding and maintaining one of the 5 largest armies in the world, with approximately 1 million ground soldiers supported by an air force of approximately 840 jet combat aircraft and a navy of approximately 675 naval vessels. This publication will address the North Korean military in the altered context represented by the trends and developments noted above. The material presented is intended to update that contained in the 1991 publication, substantial portions of which remain valid.