What is North Korea’s Military Strength Now? Would They Still Need China’s Assistance in a War?

As 2024 begins, an unusual tension fills the air.

On the morning of January 5, the South Korean military reported that the North Korean military fired approximately 200 artillery shells towards South Korea from the border area. Fortunately, these shells all landed in the buffer zone between the two countries, causing no actual casualties or property damage.

However, netizens seemed to focus on a different aspect.

In the past two years, with the global economic downturn, North Korea’s financial reports haven’t looked good. So, the question arises: doesn’t it hurt them to fire 200 shells in one go?

What exactly is North Korea’s current military strength? If a war were to break out again, would they still need China’s support?

North Korea’s Silent Missile Development

Without a deep understanding, it’s hard to imagine that North Korea ranks just after the US, Russia, and China in terms of active military personnel, known as the “nation in arms.”

With a population base of only about 25 million, North Korea boasts an active military personnel count of 1.28 million, meaning there’s one soldier for every less than 20 people.

This ratio of military personnel to civilians is aptly described by the term “total mobilization.”

To put it into perspective, China’s active military personnel total around 2.03 million, yet China’s population is over 1.4 billion.

Of these 1.28 million North Korean soldiers, about 80% are in the army, with the remaining 10% serving in the air force.

Compared to this, the navy is relatively weak, accounting for only 5% of the total military personnel, roughly equal to the number in the Strategic Rocket Forces.

Why does such a militarized country have such an uneven development among its armed forces?

Apart from external factors like technological embargoes, the real driver behind North Korea’s military development direction is “need.”

With its inland areas mostly mountainous, it’s more cost-effective for North Korea to develop anti-aircraft missiles and artillery firepower than to focus on the navy or air force.

Thus, North Korea has been keen on developing missiles and nuclear weapons for the past decade.

On April 18, 2017, a North Korean vice foreign minister stated in an interview with BBC in Pyongyang that North Korea would defend its right to develop missiles “to the death,” vowing to continue “every year, every month, every week,” and if any country interfered with North Korea’s development, they would respond with the adversary’s own methods.

Years of effort have indeed yielded significant results for North Korea.

On March 12, 2022, the “Hero Ship of August 24” successfully launched two strategic cruise missiles, both hitting targets 1,500 kilometers away with precision, following an “8” shaped trajectory, perfectly meeting the design standards.

Four days later, the “Hwasong-17” was successfully tested, making North Korea the third country after the US and Russia to possess hypersonic intercontinental ballistic missiles.

According to KCNA, the “Hwasong-17” flew at altitudes above 6,500 kilometers and reached speeds up to Mach 22, suggesting its strike radius could reach 15,000 kilometers, nearly on par with Russia’s “Yars.”

With a distance of only 11,000 kilometers from Pyongyang to Washington, D.C., North Korea seemingly has the capability for ultra-long-range military strikes against countries across the ocean.

Quantity over Quality

It’s worth mentioning that on July 12, 2023, KCNA reported that North Korea had conducted a test launch of the “Hwasong-18,” which uses a canister launch system. Although its range is not as extensive as its predecessors, the missile’s mobility has been significantly enhanced.

Among the nations with nuclear capabilities, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is considered rudimentary.

However, compared to over 200 countries without nuclear weapons, the mere existence of nuclear bombs is a significant threat.

The Strategic Rocket Forces, making up only 5% of North Korea’s total military strength, have a profound impact on the global stage. So, what is the true military capability of North Korea’s army, navy, and air force?

Looking at the numbers alone, North Korea’s strategic reserves are impressive, with 4,700 tanks and 950 fighter jets.

Many question the significance of these numbers, as most of the military equipment is outdated, some even being relics from the Soviet era.

For example, while Western powers race towards sixth-generation fighters, North Korea’s air force relies on first and second-generation aircraft.

Chinese-made J-6 and J-7 fighters, along with Soviet-made MiG-21s, total over 430 units, nearly half of North Korea’s air force.

The more advanced third-generation fighter, the MiG-29, numbers only 35 units.

Given the age of these aircraft and the challenges of maintenance and parts replacement, their actual combat capabilities are questionable.

North Korea’s navy is even more modest, with 46,000 active personnel and over 800 vessels of various types.

At first glance, these numbers might seem adequate.

However, North Korea’s three major vessels are all incapacitated due to radio issues, leaving them docked in military ports awaiting technological breakthroughs.

Of the 400+ small and medium-sized vessels, only six “Sariwon” class and T-class light frigates, along with 38 missile boats under 300 tons, are equipped with SS-N2 “Styx” anti-ship missiles, a small number indeed.

Moreover, the SS-N2 “Styx,” the world’s first operational anti-ship missile, is now over 50 years old.

Ignoring potential preservation issues, facing modern electronic warfare and missile defense systems, these 20th-century weapons are nearly obsolete.

Why Does South Korea Remain Wary of North Korea Despite Weak Air and Naval Forces?

North Korea’s answer lies in its over 20,000 artillery pieces.

With more than 4,000 large-caliber howitzers and cannons, and over 3,000 large-caliber artillery pieces mostly positioned along the DMZ, they stand as loyal guardians of North Korea’s borders.

Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is only 50 kilometers away from the DMZ.

French media speculated that even with outdated equipment, North Korea could flatten Seoul in just a few hours under the barrage of over 8,000 heavy artillery pieces.

The North-South Military Disparity

For artillery, North Korea follows the Soviet Union’s legacy.

North Korea’s 170mm Koksan gun, based on the Soviet 180mm coastal defense gun, was later mounted on a T-55 tank chassis, becoming a new type of self-propelled artillery.

In terms of rocket artillery, North Korea’s 09-type 300mm rocket launcher is a significant long-range asset.

This artillery piece has a range of over 90 kilometers, sufficient for military needs on the Korean Peninsula.

Notably, during the 2022 military parade, North Korea officially unveiled a 6-barrel 600mm caliber rocket launcher for the first time.

North Korean military claims that just four rounds from this launcher could level an airfield.

North Korea’s artillery strength is evident, but so are its weaknesses.

The Soviet “brute force” design philosophy is vividly embodied in North Korea, contrasting sharply with the severe lack of electronic advancements.

South Korea’s artillery system has a distinct American influence, focusing on automation and electronic development.

The K-9 self-propelled howitzer, highly sought after in the international market in recent years, exemplifies this.

With a range of 54 kilometers and equipped with communication, smart heating, and fire protection systems, the K-9 represents a model of East Asian military-industrial cooperation.

However, the K-9’s advantages are not fully utilized on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea has built numerous anti-tank defenses along the DMZ, and the 45-ton K-9 struggles against these ground ambushes.

Additionally, the K-9 has faced international controversy over potential design flaws.

Most tanks and self-propelled howitzers lock their turrets when the cockpit is open to protect the crew.

However, South Korea seemed to overlook these details.

In 2011, a South Korean soldier was injured by a K-9 turret, and in 2015, another soldier was killed.

These tragedies finally drew attention from “Samsung Techwin,” leading to a two-year technical investigation to resolve this issue.

Regarding the air force and navy, North Korea seems likely to be at a disadvantage against South Korea, backed by the United States.

Would China extend its hand to North Korea if necessary?

This brings us to the “Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty.”

As China’s only permanent cooperation treaty, China would stand firmly with North Korea in the event of aggression.

This is due to geopolitical security concerns, as North Korea’s security is closely linked to China’s.

However, this is a worst-case scenario.

Given the current military capabilities of countries around the world, the destructive power of war is greater than ever before.

Peace is the common desire of all humanity.