Military capability of North Korea in 1980s   

Dr. Rafał Leśkiewicz

Military capability of North Korea in the 1980s according to Polish documents of the communist military apparatus

For many years the eyes of the whole world have been directed toward one of the last contemporary totalitarian states – North Korea. Although these states often fail, the tests of ballistic missiles and especially of nuclear weapons conducted by its unpredictable leader, Kim Jong Un, have probably disturbed the sleep of several leaders of current military powers. Hopes for a change of attitude of the North Korean leader have been raised in the aftermath of the declarations signed by US President Donald Trump with Kim Jong Un in Singapore on 12 June  2018, but the situation remains unpredictable.

When following the discussion on the militarization of North Korea, it is useful to refer to the documentation for the origins of such military potential. The military development of North Korea peaked in the end of the 1980s, creating a foundation for further investments today. The regime, disregarding the internal crisis, poverty and lack of food in the country, invested in its most strategic sector – the development and equipment of the military forces.

The IPN Archives have gathered together files of Polish military intelligence for public access. These Archives are an interesting source of information about military issues. These documents show that the Second Directorate of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, a communist military secret apparatus, had conducted its own analyses of the military power of other countries. The Directorate also had a mission stationed in Pyongyang with the purpose of gathering information about the military potential of North Korea, deployment of the Army, and its military equipment.

Information of this kind was reported by the officers of the Polish Army stationed in North Korea, based upon cooperation with the Korean People’s Army and upon having access to documents and some military units. Due to limited access to contemporary intelligence materials on North Korea, the documentation preserved by friendly communist countries, in this case Poland about 30 years ago, shed some light on the military development of that country.

The Supreme Commander at the time was of course Kim Il Sung, and in government the country had a Minister of the Armed Forces responsible for the Army, supervised by the National Defense Commission (currently State Affairs Commission).

The content of the reports indicates that Kim Il Sung was investing in the Armed Forces to the ruin of his own country. Toward the end of the 1980s, military expenditure was estimated at 10% of GDP, and in absolute terms the expenditure was estimated at about 4 billion USD at the time. Even though the country’s Armed Forces were large in numbers, they were not modernized. At the time, the Armed Forces constituted approximately 900,000 soldiers, including 40,000 Internal Troops who guarded government and public facilities and conducted coastal patrols. The reservists brought this total to 4 million personnel.

The ground forces were the largest; estimated at the time to be at 750,000 personnel, they included 3 Army Divisions, 8 Corps, 34 Infantry Divisions, 2 Armored Divisions, 5 Mechanized Divisions, 9 Independent Infantry Brigades, 7 Independent Armored Brigades, and a Ballistic Missiles Brigade.

North Korea possessed at the time approximately 3500 tanks and 1140 armored fighting vehicles. Artillery included 4650 cannons and howitzers, in addition to 2000 missile launchers and 54 surface-to-surface missile launchers of a short range of up to 70 km. It also possessed 3300 anti-tank guns, 11,000 mortars and 8000 anti-aircraft guns.

The Air Force included 55,000 members, 3 Bomber Regiments, 10 Fighter Bomber Regiments, 12 Fighter Regiments and Air Transporters. In addition, the anti-aircraft defense included 4 Anti-aircraft Missile Brigades and self-propelled anti-aircraft systems.

The aircraft inventory included 800 fighters and 179 helicopters. Most of the machines were Soviet type such as Il-28, SU-7, MIG15/17, MIG 19 and MIG 21.

The airbase structure consisted of 13 large bases and at least 30 smaller ones, with many located near the Demilitarized Zone.

The People’s Navy at the time had approximately 35,000 personnel organized into two fleets: the East Coast Fleet and the West Coast Fleet, with 450 warships, 20 submarines, 4 frigates, 30 missile boats, 32 patrol boats, 182 torpedo boats, 163 artillery boats and 18 landing crafts.

Even though the military development of North Korea has increased in many ways to the present day, it is safe to say that the foundations of the current military power and the basic military structures of DPRK were built in the 1980s. One element that has dramatically changed the situation is the addition of the nuclear weapons arsenal, which is used to threaten other countries, including major world powers.

Map of Air Forces bases attached to the military report

Map of factories built in the DPRK by Poland