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North Korea

Role in National Life

The United States Department of Defense estimated that North Korea had a million troops under arms for most of the 1980s, although P'yongyang regularly claimed that it maintained its armed forces at around 400,000 persons (see fig. 14). Given the closed nature of North Korean society, there was little publicly available evidence to validate either claim until the research conducted in 1991 by Nicholas Eberstadt and Judith Banister at the Harvard University Center for Population and Development Studies. Their estimates, derived from DPRK population data given to the UN, suggest that the number of males in the North Korean armed forces had increased from at least 740,000 in 1975 to over 900,000 in 1980 and 1.2 million in 1986. The estimates also suggest that more than one out of every five North Korean men between the ages of sixteen and fifty-four was in the military as of 1986. If all military men are of the ages conscripts were thought to serve, that is, ages seventeen to twenty-six, they would constitute almost half the age group. The armed forces would have accounted for at least 12 percent of the entire male population and at least 6 percent of the total population. As a result of estimated decreases in that age group over the 1990s, the same size military force will constitute 59 percent of the conscript age group in the year 2000, and 57 percent in 2005.

Although difficult to quantify, the economic consequences of such a massive military establishment are staggering. North Korea's published budget figures, however, are of little use in estimating the impact of the massive military buildup. Many analysts dismiss North Korea's military budget figures completely, while others assume that significant costs related to defense expenditures are hidden under nondefense budget headings. Most estimates put the total for military expenditures in the range of 20 to 25 percent of the gross national product (GNP--see Glossary) (see fig. 15).

Military personnel sometimes are assigned to civilian duty. For example, troops may be assigned to factories to alleviate labor shortages. Training seldom is held during planting or harvesting seasons to allow troops to assist farmers. Much of the construction of major infrastructure projects is completed by military engineering units or regular military personnel mobilized in support of special projects. Military-associated construction since the 1950s includes such diverse projects as the Namhng chemical complex, the Sunch'n synthetic fiber complexes, the P'yongyang-Wnsan and P'yongyang-Kaesng expressways, the sports complexes for the games of the Thirteenth World Festival of Youth and Students, various barrages and lockgates, the Taech'n power station, the 800-kilometer west coast waterway project, coal mines, cement factories, public housing and government buildings, tramways, and dams.

The number of troops used for construction projects at any one time is unknown. During the 1980s, however, construction became nearly a full-time activity for selected units as result of civilian labor shortages. In 1986 North Korea announced that some 150,000 troops had been transferred to domestic construction projects. A 1987 announcement indicated that 100,000 troops were active in civilian construction projects. These troops were not discharged, and some were merely assigned to the projects. Other troops may have been reassigned to engineering bureaus while they participated in various projects.

At no time did reassignment to construction work represent a real reduction in military strength. However, it undoubtedly had a negative impact on military readiness and capability. Basic individual skills were maintained, but large unit training was more likely to deteriorate.

Data as of June 1993