How capable is North Korea’s military in a conventional war?

How capable is North Korea’s military in a conventional war?

The North Korean’s have been preparing themselves for conflict with the United States, and South Korea since the 1950’s. But how much of a fight could they put up?

According to a Department of Defense report from 2017, the North Korean military consists of 5% of the 25 million citizens of North Korea. Additionally, upwards of 25-30% of the remaining population are in either paramilitary or reserve forces. This would come out to be 1,250,000 active soldiers and an additional 7,500,000 in reserve.

This makes North Korea the world’s fourth-largest military. Approximately 70% of the North Korean army and 50% of it’s Navy and Air Force is deployed within 60 miles of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The border which separates North and South Korea.

The military suffers from resource shortages, logistical resupply problems, and outdated equipment. They solve these problems by massing large troops concentrations near their borders. The presence of North Korean forces along the border region allows them to initiate an attack against the South Koreans with little to no warning.

Their Air force has more than 1,300 aircraft, mainly consisting of older Soviet-era models. Their most modern, and dangerous aircraft is the MiG-29 air superiority jet, which they acquired in the late ’80s. Though the exact numbers are unknown, it’s believed they have roughly 35 of them. Additionally, they have roughly 56 MiG-23’s, and 34 Su-25 attack aircraft.


However, the bulk of their air force consists of MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 jets, all ranging from 1947 to the 1960s. They also have a larger fleet of An-2 Colt propeller aircraft, which would be used mainly to transport special forces. Their airforce is also rounded out by several hundred helicopters, capable of troop transport and close air support.

Most of these helicopters are the Mi-2 Hoplite, built in the 1960s, but also include US made MD-500 helicopters. Additionally, they have roughly 20 Mi-24 Hind gunships.

Mi-2 Hoplite

The biggest threat that their air force poses towards the United States and South Korea is their Anti-Air however. North Korea has a large number of SA-2, SA-3, and SA-5 systems, and mobile SA-13 systems. These are used in dense, overlapping air defense area’s, along with numerous portable anti-air systems, such as the SA-7 Grail. They are also believed to have newer Russian S-300 systems, which are more of a threat.

The North Korean Navy is the smallest of the Branches, mainly used for coastal defense. The majority of their naval fleet consists of outdated coastal ships, unable to travel further than 50 nautical miles from their coasts. This prevents ships on the East Coast from reaching the West Coast, and vice versa.

They also have one of the largest submarine fleets in the world, however very outdated. Most of these submarines are coastal, attack, and midget submarines, all of which are Diesel-Electric submarines. This means that anti-submarine warfare ships and aircraft would have an easier time finding them.

Recently, the North Korean military has shown their newest submarine, a ballistic missile submarine. This is a great danger to South Korea and potentially Japan, and even United States bases in Guam, and Okinawa, due to the missiles it could carry.

The biggest threat that the North Korean navy possess comes from their anti-ship missiles and naval mines, mounted on approximately 43 patrol boats. These missiles have a rough range of 25 nautical miles and could be used to great effect by attacking shipping lanes and military shipping along their coasts.

The North Korean Army is the largest of all the branches, with the most funding, and equipment. Predominantly, their army consists of regular and light infantry, supported by armor and mechanized units, alongside heavy concentrations of artillery. Their equipment is quite outdated, with only a handful of vehicles and other pieces ever being modernized. However, this does not mean they are ineffective.

Their long-range 170mm cannons and 240mm rocket artillery emplacements pose a serious threat towards Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and the Northern parts of South Korea. Additionally, the use of the KN-SS-X-9 rockets further extends that range, allowing for targets in the Southern parts of Korea to be hit.


The biggest threat besides their thousands of artillery pieces is their special forces. They are the most trained, equipment, fed, and motivated soldiers in the North Korean military and there is roughly 200,000 of them. That is about the size of the United States Marine Corp.

These special forces would be supported by the navy’s large number of assault ships and landing ships, along with the AN-2 transport planes. If used successfully, targeted attacks against South Korean government officials and military leaders could harm a war against North Korea. Sabotage would be another concern for South Korea, as it’s unknown if special forces units already reside in South Korea, waiting to strike.

Finally, the North Koreans have a formidable cyber warfare force, and a stockpile of chemical and nuclear weapons. It’s unknown if the North Koreans can mount nuclear warheads on their missiles, but if they could, they could hit Seoul or any other targets in the Pacific with the possibility of being able to hit the mainland United States.

North Korea is estimated to have anywhere between 2,500 to 5,000 metric tons of Chemical and Biological weapons, ranking third after Russia and the United States. These weapons vary from nerve agents, blistering agents, and biological weapons such as anthrax, smallpox and cholera.

As for nuclear weapons, it’s estimated that North Korea could have up to 60 warheads in its stockpile. Most of which would probably be in the 10 to 20 kiloton ratio, smaller than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. If one such bomb was to hit Seoul, casualties would be anywhere from the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

North Korea’s cyber warfare capacities are growing quickly. It’s believed that they could target American, or South Korean infrastructure with little fear of retaliation due to them separating all of their networks. Additionally, if a retaliation attack was successful on North Korea, very little damage would come from it.

All of these factors lead to the idea that despite North Korea’s known weakness, they are semi capable of striking back against American and South Korean forces. They are even more capable at targeting South Korea’s population, making a war too risky for South Korea.

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