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North Korea


North Korea is heavily militarized, with over a million military personnel. It has been estimated that one out of every five North Korean men between the ages of sixteen and fifty-four was in the military in 1992. The active-duty forces account for at least 6 percent of the population and at least 12 percent of the male population. These capabilities far exceed any conceivable defensive requirement.

This force structure and offensive orientation are relatively new phenomena for the Korean Peninsula. Despite frequent external military challenges, the military has never enjoyed high social status in traditional Korea. The traditional value systems of Buddhism and Confucianism hold the military profession in low esteem. The yangban (see Glossary) class initially had two official ranks: civil and military officials. The yangban civil official class, which rose to power in the tenth century during the Kory Dynasty (918-1392), feared a powerful military might dominate the government (see The Origins of the Korean Nation , ch. 1; Social Structure and Values , ch. 2). Rivalry for power between the two classes resulted in military dominance over civil officials and contributed to some 100 years of political instability during the Kory Dynasty. Yi Sng-gye, a former military general and the founder of the Chosn (Yi) Dynasty (1392-1910), sought to break this cycle. Once the dynasty was firmly in place, military officials gradually lost out in the competition for high government positions and civil officials were preferred even in senior military commands. As a result, even through five centuries of Chosn Dynasty rule, the ruling elite was seldom compelled to strengthen the military enough to defend the nation. The Chosn Dynasty relied upon its tributary status with China for national defense. Despite two major invasions by the Japanese and the Manchus, there is no enduring military tradition in Korea.

In times of emergency, the general population would form a volunteer army ( ibyng) to oppose invaders. This practice continued during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45). Several anti-Japanese militias, including Kim Il Sung's group of guerrillas (Kim Il Sung was president of the DPRK and general secretary of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) in mid-1993), were organized by Koreans and operated independently or as part of the Chinese or Soviet forces.

The origins of military organizations and police forces in what would become North Korea during the Soviet occupation are difficult to understand because of limited and contradictory information, and the confusion of the times. Kim Il Sung originally operated in northern China in forces associated with the Chinese communists. He fled to the Soviet Union and later appeared in Soviet uniform at Wnsan in 1945. The North Korean military grew out of the eventual merger of the Chinese communist and Soviet forces (see The National Division and the Origins of the DPRK , ch. 1).

There were factional power struggles among the various Korean troops. The Yan'an faction had its origins in the Korean nationalist movement in China. Mu Chng, a veteran of the Chinese Communist Party's Long March (1934-35), established a Korean military unit (KVA) in Yan'an with Chinese communist backing. Mu was acknowledged by the Chinese communists as the central leader of the Korean independence communist movement. The Korean Yan'an contingent never was massive, but by mid-1941 most of the Korean anti-Japanese activity had shifted to northern China. Under Chinese communist protection, the Yan'an faction trained a substantial number of military and political cadres and was a political and military force to be reckoned with when it tried to return to Korea in 1945. Mu was commander of the Second Corps during the open phase of the Korean War but reportedly escaped and was purged during the December 1950 plenum because the entry of the Chinese People's Volunteers into the war made him too great a threat to Kim Il Sung's faction.

Kim Il Sung's faction, known as the Kapsan faction, did not operate as an independent anti-Japanese unit in China during World War II. (Kapsan is the name of a place in North Korea near the border with Manchuria--as northeast China was then called-- where Kim's forces were headquartered prior to escaping to the Soviet Far Eastern provinces in 1940.) Rather, the faction was part of the Soviet Eighty-Eighth Sniper Brigade--a mixed Chinese, Korean, and Soviet reconnaissance unit stationed in Khabarovsk. Kim Il Sung, commander of one of the battalions, was a captain in the Soviet Army when he reentered Korea in 1945.

Kim Il Sung's Kapsan faction dominated the military leadership even before the Korean War. The role of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in the interfactional struggles of the 1950s, during which Kim Il Sung solidified his control of the KWP and the state, is unclear. With the victory of Kim's faction, all remaining Yan'an (Chinese) faction members were purged.

The first political-military school in North Korea, the P'yongyang Military Academy, headed by Kim Chaek, an ally of Kim Il Sung, was founded in October 1945 under Soviet guidance to train people's guards, or public security units. In 1946 graduates of the school entered regular police and public security/constabulary units. These lightly armed security forces included followers of Kim Il Sung and returned veterans from China. Many veterans from China who had tried to return home immediately after World War II were stopped by Soviet forces at the border. Some were disarmed and allowed to enter North Korea; the rest were returned to Manchuria, where the force was expanded and tempered in the Chinese civil war. While the Chinese- sponsored forces were growing into maturity in Manchuria, Kim Il Sung secured control of the military and security apparatus in North Korea with Soviet sponsorship. His dominant position within the armed forces was crucial to securing control of the state.

Soviet forces withdrew in 1948, leaving an approximately 60,000-man Korean army and a larger paramilitary force that included people's guards, border guards, and railroad security forces. On February 8, 1948, the North Korean Provisional Committee officially announced the formation of the KPA and the establishment of the Ministry of People's Armed Forces, which controlled a central guard battalion, two divisions, and an independent mixed brigade.

The Soviet Union fostered the development of the KPA and supplied weapons and equipment, along with temporarily transferred advisers and personnel who helped to draft the operational plans for the southward invasion in 1950. The core combat units of the KPA, however, traced their origins to the small Korean Volunteer Army (KVA), which had fought with the Chinese communist Eighth Route Army. Aided by a massive influx of Soviet matériel, the KPA grew to between 150,000 and 200,000 men by the time it invaded South Korea in June 1950. As many as 10,000 personnel had received training in the Soviet Union, including ethnic Koreans and Soviet citizens and soldiers. An estimated 40,000 men were battle-hardened veterans of the Chinese civil war who had returned to the north in 1949 and formed the main force units of the KPA.

Information uncovered in 1992 confirmed that both the Soviet Union and China were aware and supportive of North Korea's invasion plans in 1949. Yu Song Cho, deputy chief of staff of the KPA at the time of the invasion, revealed that Soviet military advisers went so far as to rewrite his initial invasion order. Russian statements in 1992 revealed that Soviet air defense and fighter units totalling 26,000 men participated in the Korean War.

The initial stages of the Korean War almost brought victory to the KPA, which had excellent capabilities and successfully applied breakthrough and exploitation techniques. However, the intervention of the United States-led United Nations (UN) forces, the UN Command, denied the KPA victory on the battlefield. Fighting on the Pusan defense perimeter began on August 1 and continued through to the Inch'n landing on September 15. These defeats broke the KPA and virtually destroyed it as a cohesive force.

China, finding the UN Command occupation of North Korea unacceptable and its diplomatic efforts ignored, announced the formation of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army in October 1950. The Chinese People's Liberation Army massed some 850,000 "volunteer troops" north of the Yalu River, launched a major offensive in November 1950, and succeeded in driving the UN Command forces southward. Only the intervention of the Chinese People's Volunteers and the help of massive Soviet material assistance enabled the KPA to reconstitute itself. The front eventually stabilized close to the thirty-eighth parallel.

Hostilities ended inconclusively with an armistice agreement in July 1953, signed by the commanders of the KPA, the UN Command--which included ROK forces--and the Chinese People's Volunteer Army. Technically, the peninsula remained in a state of war restrained by an armistice. The subject of replacing the armistice with a formal peace agreement was mentioned in the 1991 Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges, and Cooperation between North Korea and South Korea, but remained unresolved in mid-1993. KPA losses in the Korean War, called the Fatherland Liberation War by North Korea, totaled more than half a million persons, although North Korea has not released figures. The war also resulted in the virtual destruction of North Korea's economy and infrastructure (see Economic Development and Structural Change , ch. 3). Chinese troops remained in North Korea until October 1958.

After the war, the KPA was reconstituted, but until the early 1960s rebuilding military strength remained less important than economic reconstruction. The signing of treaties of mutual assistance with the Soviet Union and China in 1961 and the promulgation of the Four Military Guidelines in 1962 brought the military back to a position of primacy, which it retained as of mid-1993.

Data as of June 1993

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