The Armed Forces of North Korea

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

When the Cold War ended, and the Iron Curtain was lifted, an era commenced of which the unprecedented spread of information is perhaps its most defining characteristic. The proliferation of media (primarily through the advent of the global internet), increased transparency of nations across the world, and what amounts to the commercialisation of the arms trade have all caused a wealth of knowledge to become accessible even to those with limited resources. This has caused the area of open-source intelligence (OSINT) to bloom like never before, with a vast variety of high quality works on pretty much every imaginable topic suddenly becoming available.

Of course, exceptions remained. Some regions were left stuck in a vacuum from which information seeped only slowly due to tight security, poor connectivity or mere neglectfulness. Nevertheless – or perhaps precisely because of this reason – it is often these regions that play a pivotal role in today’s conflict areas. Perhaps the most fragrant such case is the one we have chosen to address in On the Path of Songun. As quite unambiguously the most militarised nation in existence today, the topic of North Korea’s armed forces for a long time resembled an ocean of inaccessible knowledge, surrounded by the impenetrable dyke* that is the DPRK’s (mostly) self-imposed isolation and pathological secrecy.

But then, this dyke sprung a leak. In fact, a major rent has since appeared, aiding the aspiring OSINT analyst and allowing him to begin navigating the unknown waters that make up the obscure area of North Korean military matters. The two most important developments that contributed to this change include the increasing availability of commercial satellite imagery, and the fact that North Koreans have eagerly taken advantage of the internet themselves to spread propaganda videos glorifying the leadership and their armed forces. Combining these two sources of information and cross-checking them with more conventional written publications and, of course, copious amounts of our own research, has provided an effective way of essentially rewriting the book on the DPRK’s armed forces and its equipment.

Roughly five years ago, we were not entirely aware of the fact that this was what we were about to set out to do. We were even less aware of the fact that it would take until now to definitively put this thing together. As it happened, two factors would ultimately conspire to keep us one step away from the finish line at all times:
Factor 1: The North Koreans are surprisingly busy bees when it comes to military innovation.
Factor 2: The authors of this book are surprisingly bad at deciding when it is time to stop including new material.

The first factor was exacerbated by Kim Jong Un’s renewed dedication to the creation of a credible strategic deterrent for his nation, in the form of his oft-promoted Byungjin Line. The confrontational attitudes between the DPRK, ROK and the USA during the period of writing ever seemed to further egg on the North’s military machine, at times leaving the intelligence community scrambling to keep up with the latest developments. In the end, the (now failed) period of diplomatic rapprochement in 2018/2019 and the implicit cessation of military posturing finally allowed us to catch up, in spite of factor 2, and put a conclusion to what has become an unintentionally complete accounting of all matters related to North Korea’s armed forces, from the Korean War until now.

The Armed Forces of North Korea: On the Path of Songun can be ordered here.

* Forgive the awkward analogy – both of us are after all Dutch by birth.  

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