This is the third of the supplemental articles for the Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power series. It details the various infrastructure changes and weapon developments of North Korea's conventional forces over the last decade.
As I recently laid out in Sharpening the Treasured Sword, there’s plenty to talk about when it comes to the nuclear issue and there’s no shortage of analysts and think tanks who provide valuable information on the topic. What often gets overlooked, however, is how North Korea’s conventional military has changed over the years, particularly regarding training, and how the parallel national economy operated by the military has altered the literal landscape of defense infrastructure.
The US Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2021 North Korea Military Power report noted,
Kim Jong Un has also focused his attention on the KPA’s conventional capabilities. From 2011-2017 Kim kept up a steady pace of public engagements with military units to emphasize the KPA’s centrality to the North Korean regime, and has directed improvements in the realism and complexity of military training. To that end, Kim presided over high-profile artillery firepower exercises, Air Force pilot competitions, and special forces raid training on mock-ups of the South Korean presidential residence.
Using the locations mapped in the AccessDPRK 2021 Pro Map, I want to examine the evidence of on-the-ground changes and what adaptations have occurred under Kim Jong-un to the country’s conventional forces, and how these changes have positioned the North Korean armed forces to take greater advantage of their limited technology and supplies so they still pose a credible threat in spite of such limitations.
Within the AccessDPRK map are over 13,000 military-related sites. However, a single missile or navy base could include a dozen other sites as individual locations of interest within those bases are identified. Thus, the focus of this supplemental report will be on the primary aspects of North Korea’s military infrastructure: individual bases as a whole, major artillery sites, the KPA Navy, and KPA Air Force. So, this brought the scope of research down to around 5,000 relevant locations.
As they’re associated with the nuclear issue, the country’s missile bases are excluded from this report as are the numerous static fortifications throughout the country. While static fortifications may have a role to play in delaying an invasion, and though some sites have been constructed by Kim Jong-un, they are not part of North Korea’s offensive capabilities nor would they play any sort of active role during a conflict in the same way a radar site or airbase would.
I’m also not going to include airfields that were constructed or modernized for VIP use. Sites like the Sanghung-dong VIP Helibase or palace runways tell a story in their own right, but I don’t feel they belong in the scope of this report.
A map of bases
that have either been constructed or undergone major renovations since Kim
Jong-un came to power.
In the process of mapping the country, which I began in late 2012, two main trends became obvious. One, that there was some sort of overall restructuring taking place. And, secondly, that there was a huge emphasis being placed on military training.
Although these changes began years prior, it was at the Seventh Central Military Commission meeting in 2019 that the KNCA reported on major reforms within the military. Particularly, the government wanted to address “irrational structure and defects in machinery and some shortcomings in other military [activities]” and the meeting discussed the “decisive improvement of the overall national defence and core matters for the sustained and accelerated development of military capability for self-defence.”
The reference to “machinery” wasn’t talking about industrial machines but was referring to the military bureaucracy and how the military carries out its goals, from training and readiness to utilizing personnel.
The Seventh Central Military Commission thereby served to openly codify what had already been happening on the ground for some time.
Based on the AccessDPRK 2021 Pro Map, there have been at least 127 bases that were either newly constructed or underwent a major renovation since 2012 (with heightened activity from 2014-2017). And, reflecting North Korea’s military strategy, most of the new construction has been at sites within 100 km of the DMZ, which is where roughly half of all KPA personnel is stationed.
Among these facilities are over 50 training bases of various types. Ranging from small collections of obstacle courses and firing ranges to large tank training fields and urban warfare centers, it is clear that the organizational system for training has been reformed and as part of that, that the bases themselves underwent a period of renovation to better provide the types of training the regime deems necessary.
A few examples can be found at the following sites.
- In 2014, the large training complex near Yongbyon (39.850105° 125.675129°) was modernized and an urban warfare center (or MOUT = military operations on urban terrain) was added that includes a mockup of the headquarters building of the ROK combined forces complex in Gyeryongdae.
- Soe-gol, the largest single training base in Pyongyang, had a vast driving course added in 2019 that has 11 km of paths and multiple obstacle sites (berms, water obstacles, etc). Other portions of the base have also been renovated or expanded over the decade.
- An example of a more traditional training complex can be found at 38.422863° 128.102209°. It was established in 2016 and contains an obstacle course with hurdles, ditches, a trench, and a 100-meter-long pool.
- Lastly, a 1.5 sq. km. complex near the Ryokpo Leadership Residence (38.895717° 125.940640°) was completely reconstructed from 2014-15 and includes multiple distinct training areas. While the exact identification of the complex is unknown to me, its layout and building designs suggest that it includes ideological training beyond what is normally provided and is used by elite military units.
As the US Defense Intelligence Agency's military power report also noted, “North Korea has emphasized SOF unit training with particular focus on improving their capability to raid key government installations in the South.”
As part of that, North Korea constructed scale-models of South Korea’s Blue House, the DMZ Joint Security Area (Panmunjom), and the aforementioned Gyeryongdae model.
The Blue House is of particular interest because in 1968 thirty-one North Korean agents infiltrated the grounds of the Blue House in an attempt to assassinate South Korean president Park Chung-hee. The model was constructed in 2016 and “raids” have been carried out at least twice, with paratroopers and other special forces attacking the building.
No large-scale attack exercises are known to have taken place at either the mock Panmunjom or Gyeryongdae sites but both structures are located at large training bases and provide the KPA with opportunities to familiarize themselves with the locations and how to attack them. However, Panmunjom offers more than just war training.
The timing of its construction in late 2017, while not built for the summit no one knew would happen, could have given Kim Jong-un and particularly his security guards the ability to do dry runs, walking through the complex and knowing how and where to move. It may even now serve to train the border guards in the region on how to stop any future defections after the bold escape of Oh Chong-song on Nov. 13, 2017.
While these mockups could be categorized as part of MOUT training, the largest MOUT base in the country is at Unsal (40.013806° 125.885916°), with the ‘urban’ section of the base covering 16 hectares. The actual MOUT structures have largely remained the same, but the other facilities at the base were expanded in two phases between 2014 and 2020, with the administrative center receiving the most change. As I’ll discuss in some more detail later, a paratrooper jump tower was also erected at the base in 2014.
The large Changdo training complex (38.642975° 127.742591°) includes a MOUT sector that was constructed in 2018-19 as well as a large firing range and areas for tank maneuvers. In 2011 and 2018 a series of 31 new barracks were constructed, allowing at least 1,500 soldiers to train at the base at any given time.
Of the seven largest MOUT facilities, five have experienced some level of renovation or expansion and a sixth may currently be having relevant construction done.
Lastly, dozens of ‘drive-thru’ bunkers have also been constructed in recent years. These bunkers are able to accommodate trucks, armored vehicles, and towed artillery but not TELs. The bunkers vary in size but tend to be 5-6 meters wide and 20-40 meters long. They can be used to protect vehicles during fueling or adding armaments and also provide hardened cover to allow them to fire at a target and then hide to evade detection and counterfire, the so-called shoot-and-scoot tactic.
One of the earliest changes that Kim Jong-un saw through was the construction of 126 hardened artillery sites (HARTS). Nearly all of them were built within 10 km of the DMZ.
Construction work on this massive project began soon before Kim Jong-il’s death, but Kim Jong-un continued the work which extended into 2017. These new HARTS comprise 20.7% of all HARTS in the region and hold between four and six individual guns (the Koksan 170 mm self-propelled gun, and 122 mm, 130 mm, and 152 mm systems are all capable of being used at these sites). The new HARTS can fire artillery 60 km, placing all of Seoul and Inchon in range of tens of thousands of artillery shells an hour.
A number of individual hardened bunkers for multiple rocket launchers were constructed as part of this broader project along the coast of South Hwanghae Province, placing islands near the Northern Limit Line at risk. Most of these MRL bunkers were constructed in 2012 after the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, with several more built in 2014. It has been reported that Kim Jong-un visited one of the bases from where the shelling originated the day before the attack.
Despite their near obsolescence in the face of modern fighter jets, North Korea has also continued to update its air defenses and to reassess which anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) batteries are still necessary and which ones can be decommissioned.
In the last decade, 19 AAA batteries have been constructed. Additionally, there are two likely surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites currently under construction which, once completed, would bring the total number of active sites to 61. The new SAMs would be capable of supporting North Korea’s newest SAM system, the KN-06 and variants.
While North Korea’s AAA batteries field predominately low-altitude, Soviet-based artillery that can’t threaten most modern fighter craft or bombers, the country has nonetheless constructed 19 new batteries.
The construction of these new sites often coincided with the decommissioning of a number of others, particularly in eastern Pyongyang in 2016-17. And over the last 35 years or so, there have been around 300 total closures of AAA sites across the country. The reasons for removing an AAA site in 1986 or in 2016 could easily be the same given the state of the country’s artillery. Most of the guns are from the 1950s and 60s, there is a lack of ammunition and a lack of replacement parts for the older radar systems.
So, closing redundant sites, especially in the face of modern warfare, makes sense to preserve their limited supply of parts for more important sites. However, the fact at least 19 have been built in just the last decade raises some questions about this commonly held wisdom.
However, what’s more important than adding a few or demolishing a few AAAs has been the development of new radars, new surface-to-air missiles, and other air defenses.
But before I move on to these newer systems, a number of older AAAs have been converted to hardened sites, with the guns hidden within bunkers instead of out in the open or covered by tarps. Additionally, several other sites have had their radars replaced and other features added that may make them capable of being launching sites for rockets and short-range missiles.
As for North Korea’s surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, while most of the soon-to-be 61 active sites still rely on S-75, S-125, and S-200 systems from decades ago, the country does have the ability to maintain and replace them and they’ve been kept at a higher state of readiness than the shorter range AAAs.
But beginning in 2017, the country started to field its own KN-06 SAM system (largely based on the Russian S-300). Its use of mobile radar instead of the usual fixed emplacements also means that the systems could be deployed at any number of hardened sites and not just at the existing 61 known SAM sites. According to The Drive, the KN-06 radar system “appears to be an indigenous version of the mobile 5N63 "Flap Lid" phased array radar, and likely has capabilities somewhat akin to later versions of the S-300P SAM system…[these] later versions could track 12 and engage six.”
Continuing with air defense, North Korea recently tested a new anti-aircraft missile, with the test “aimed at confirming the practical functionality of the missile's launcher, radar, comprehensive battle command vehicle and combat performance.” More information is still needed but if the test was indeed successful and the missile goes into mass production, it adds another layer of complexity to any future air war over the peninsula.
Lastly, North Korea has tested several new types of multiple rocket launchers including a ‘super-large' MRL (known as the KN-25) in 2019 that has a range of 321 km. Blurring the line between rockets and short-range ballistic missiles, if deployed in sufficient numbers along the DMZ, they could target roughly 90% of South Korean territory and could easily threaten every American base in the country except for the U.S Navy base at Jinhae.
There were a number of early signs that the KPA Navy was attempting a modernization program (encompassing new weapons and new infrastructure), with Kim Jong-un continuing a number of programs initiated by his father and beginning some of his own.
Outside of the development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles and the Sinpo-C submarine variant (which was discussed in Sharpening the Treasured Sword), North Korea began to show off its latest Nongo class surface effect ships (SES). In development since at least 2002, the first official images of these SES with all of their armaments in place occurred in 2015.
They have been described by ArsTechnica as “a high-speed "stealth" ship-killer using a surface effect hull—a combination of catamaran and hovercraft.” The “stealth” comes from a faceted hull shape that lowers its radar reflectivity. While not a true stealth ship, it is an improvement over older vessel designs.
These SES carry four KN-09 anti-ship missiles batteries. According to ArsTechnica, they also carry two AK-630 30mm close-in weapons systems, four machine gun turrets, and a short-range anti-aircraft missile system. Nongo’s have been spotting in Wonsan, Munchon, and Nampo and at least five of them have been identified as of 2021.
The Navy also developed two new frigates capable of carrying helicopters, first launched in 2011-12. According to Joseph Bermudez, these anti-submarine warfare helicopter frigates (FFH) are the largest KPN surface ships developed since 1990 and “may also represent an evolutionary step in the development of naval strategy to include helicopter anti-submarine operations.”
Beginning around 2013, one of the two Najin-class frigates (North Korea’s flagship class) started to undergo a modernization process of its own. The vessel, hull number 631, had several systems replaced throughout 2014 and new ones added including two 30mm automated turrets (based on the Soviet AK-630 CIWS) and eight Kh-35 anti-ship missiles. Other short-range missile systems and newer radars were installed later. This makes the ship the most dangerous traditional warship in the fleet.
The ingenuity of North Korea’s Navy can be summed up in this quote by H. I. Sutton of Covert Shores, “It is a myth that North Korean naval vessels are by definition clones of older Russia or Chinese designs. In fact North Korean naval architects have produced a long string of original designs, often with novel features. They have Semi-Submersibles, catamarans, Surface Effect Ships (SES) and now they have Very Slender Vessels (VSVs).”
VSVs are high-speed, wave-piercing craft. Their wave-piercing nature enables the craft to punch through the waves (instead of riding over them, being buffeted with each one), increasing speed and lowering the physical stresses on the crew in heavier seas. Their design also gives the hull a smaller radar cross-section, although poor weapon layouts and other equipment can negate this benefit.
According to Sutton, North Korea has multiple VSV types ranging from 10 m in length to 32 m and there are at least seven individual craft in their inventory. The first VSV was spotted on Google Earth in 2012 and they are currently stationed at Chongjin, Nampo, and Wonsan.
How the regime plans to utilize this new platform isn’t known, but they are likely to be used as interceptors, patrolling the country’s important fisheries (as implied by their location in Chongjin) and also used to conduct raids into South Korean waters.
Some existing older ships have also begun to be outfitted with more modern radar systems, anti-ship missiles, close-in weapons, and torpedoes.
To facilitate the construction, berthing, and continued maintenance of these new (or improved) ships, a number of naval facilities have also undergone their own modernization program.
One of the construction halls at Nampo was elongated in 2018 and a smaller manufacturing site nearby (38.730751° 125.423457°) underwent considerable renovations and new construction in 2013-14, 2016, and in 2021.
The area north of Munchon is home to the 13th Naval Command which is a collection of at least nineteen units (dispersed in and around Kumya Bay and the Songjon Peninsula) including KPA Navy units 155, 597, and 291. It is home to squadrons of patrol boats, torpedo boats, and hovercraft (at five distinct sites).
The first instances of change here occurred in 2013 when several small barrack buildings were constructed. Work began to speed up in 2015 with numerous older facilities demolished and a large artificial port yard was constructed for Unit 291 through land reclamation, adding over 127,000 sq. m. of land and resurfacing a further 27 hectares around the village of Tapchon-ri.
Additional work was carried out at Unit 597 (39.317336° 127.401134°), a major maintenance and repair yard. Nearly the entire complex was reconstructed between 2015 and 2016 and new buildings were also added.
A one-kilometer road and rail bridge was also constructed from 2015 and 2018, connecting units 291 and 597, better integrating a naval complex that extends for several kilometers across bays and islands.
However, after the initial foundation work and land reclamation at Unit 291 (39.333230° 127.431410°), progress slowed tremendously. Currently, a few foundations have been prepared and 15 piers are under various stages of construction but there has been little substantial work since around 2018.
It was suspected that the work at Unit 291 was to create an east coast HQ for the Navy’s amphibious assault command and its numerous hovercrafts.
This stalled activity is not the only example to be found at a hovercraft facility.
There are several hovercraft bases on both coasts and the country’s fleet is around 130 Kongbang-class hovercraft. These hovercraft are stationed across ten locations with the largest concentration being in six sites in Wonsan Bay (five as part of the Muchon base and one other, north across the bay at Je-do Island).
Despite these existing facilities, Kim Jong-un began constructing three new hovercraft bases, one at San-gol-li in Kangwon and two in South Hwanghae Province at Manghae-dong and Yonbong-ni. Together, these bases would be able to station at least 90 craft and would cut transit time into South Korean waters by half, and could transport over 3,600 troops every few hours. Construction at the largest of these bases, Yongbong-ni began in 2015, followed by San-gol-li in 2016, and Manghae-dong around 2017.
Curiously, after some initial construction work, San-gol-li was abandoned. And then, after continual progress for multiple years, work at Yongbong-ni was likewise halted. Work at the nearby Monghae-dong also came to an end. Currently, all three sites seem to have been abandoned.
The reason(s) for the decision to stop construction work at these three new sites as well as the stalled work at Munchon seems inexplicable, particularly as the primary reasons for constructing them in the first place still remain pertinent. The existing bases are still well maintained and landing exercises are conducted every year, often under the watchful eye of Kim Jong-un, but it seems that the military’s focus has been drawn elsewhere for the time being.
Another major addition to naval infrastructure was the construction of a new submarine training center at Sinpo. The demolition of older structures began in 2009 but the new facility’s construction has taken all of Kim Jong-un’s rule to-date to complete, with the construction of the new buildings primarily happening after 2015. A decade in the making, this facility is suspected to replace a smaller training site at Mayang Island.
The center has two training pools with an escape tower, an academy building, and several apartment buildings for students and staff. The Sinpo facility will be the second of two primary submariner training sites, the other being at Pipa-got naval base on the west coast.
As Dave Schmerler wrote, “With this new site nearing completion, and the release of images showing what is likely to be North Korea’s first deployable ballistic missile submarine, their intentions on expanding their submarine fleet’s capability on their east coast has become much more transparent.”
The development of the Nongo-class SES, the anti-submarine warfare helicopter frigates, and the Najin modernization program have led to a reconsideration of North Korea’s maritime capabilities. While it is still not a blue-water navy, the threat it poses to South Korean ships and its ability to attack both enemy submarines and surface vessels within their territorial waters has improved dramatically compared to the KPA Navy of Kim Jong-Il’s era.
KPA Air Force
Despite North Korea’s “newest” aircraft being variations of Soviet and Chinese models from the 1970s, Kim Jong-un has nonetheless placed greater importance on the air force than Kim Jong-il, particularly when it comes to training the country’s special airborne forces, developing aerial weapon systems that can be indigenously produced (if not new fighter jets), and he also has taken steps to help improve the survivability of aircraft in the event of a crash or other emergency.
The AccessDPRK database has 30 identified highway strips. These are straight, level stretches of road (sometimes paved, sometimes not) that can be used as an emergency runway for any number of reasons. Some are geared toward use by small An-2 biplanes and others can accommodate fighter jets.
These highway strips are nothing new to North Korea, but Kim Jong-un decided to make them more useful by adding parking revetments to 29 of them. These revetments are protected by earthen berms and are typically located a hundred or so meters away from the highway to allow the road to still be used as a runway while the other aircraft are being parked.
I have identified a total of 71 individual revetments. Depending on the type of aircraft, these can accommodate anywhere from 142 to 213 aircraft combined. The main period of revetment construction occurred in 2016-17.
Two grass landing strips also had revetments added and a new landing strip was constructed near Chongjin in 2016 (41.802706° 129.854602°).
As part of the attempt to improve the survivability of aircraft during an overshoot or crash (poor maintenance and a lack of spare parts in the air force is a notorious problem), 19 major airbases had “arrester beds” constructed between 2015 and 2016.
In other countries, these beds are made up of “engineered materials”, often special concrete pads that are lightweight and can crush easily, absorbing energy and slowing down the aircraft. But in North Korea, they appear to be made up of sand beds. Though more effective than nothing, their installation highlights the struggle of trying to provide better safety while lacking the capacity to do so in substantive technical ways.
As with infantry training, the training of paratroopers and airborne special operations forces has been substantially increased. North Korea currently has ten parachute jump towers (which are used to train recruits how to use a parachute from various heights as part of their basic training before jumping from an aircraft), of those, four were constructed under Kim Jong-un with a further two being renovated.
Two of the new towers, in Pyongsan and Unsal, were constructed within large urban warfare training centers which underscores North Korea’s primary offensive strategy, that is to rely on special operations activities to disrupt South Korean military movements and slow any US counterattack by sending waves of soldiers behind enemy lines.
A third tower was constructed at the Changdo training complex in 2014. As noted in the KPA Army section, this base is capable of training at least 1,500 soldiers at any given time and provides a wide range of training exercises. The tower was built several months after the base itself underwent a major renovation.
The fourth tower built under Kim is at a remote site near Sonchon (39.823569° 124.918211°). The steel lattice tower was erected sometime between 2014 and 2017 and is a small, stand-alone training site that isn’t part of any larger complex.
A number of additions and renovations have also been noted at the Panghyon Aircraft Plant which is North Korea’s most important aircraft manufacturing center.
And, wrapping up the infrastructure changes, even the KPA Air Force’s headquarters in Chunghwa (38.868645° 125.804992°) has seen some substantial additions over the years. From the ‘Air Defense and Combat Command’, over 110,000 personnel, 1,700 aircraft, and 37 key bases (along with many smaller ones) are overseen.
The first noted change under Kim Jong-un was the construction of a new gym from 2012-13 as well as a possible ‘revolutionary history’ museum. Then in 2016 the northern end of the base saw substantial construction activity with three multi-floor dorms, an assembly hall, and another large building all being added. Another unidentified building was constructed at the same time in the center of the base.
Kim has repeatedly called for the “scientific and strategic enhancement” of the air force. In the absence of new fighter jets, bombers, modern avionics, or the ability to acquire those things, this has been taken to mean that the air force needs to develop ways to deliver nuclear weapons and to come up with other weapon systems that can be produced within the country.
To ensure a greater warfighting capacity, Kim has begun to outfit his fleet of 300 An-2 biplanes (which would be used to fly low, evading radar, and deploy paratroopers and supplies behind the front lines) with satellite navigation aids and even air-to-surface munitions.
As conflict specialist Sebastien Roblin wrote, “Surging dozens or hundreds of difficult-to-detect An-2s could easily overwhelm the air defenses on the DMZ”. To further assist in making them difficult to detect, the color scheme of the An-2s was changed in 2014 to lighter colors and countershaded, making them visually blend into the sky or ground, depending on the adversary’s perspective.
Although North Korea can domestically produce much of what the Army and Special Rocket Forces now require, their ability to develop and produce new aircraft has been a major shortfall in their capabilities. In the absence of new generations of aircraft, North Korea will have to rely on upgrading its fleet with improved sensors and electronic warfare systems as well as building up a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles to do everything from reconnaissance to conducting kamikaze attacks.
There is only limited information about North Korea’s development of new electronics, but there is plenty of evidence they are taking drone warfare seriously.
The potential value of drones as force multipliers and providing targeting data has been demonstrated in Syria, the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and by terror groups such as ISIS and the Houthis in Yemen. The asymmetric nature of drone warfare and their low cost also fits well within North Korea’s military doctrine.
In support of their UAV goals, there is a facility at 39.128763° 125.471549° (on the Tokjwa Reservoir) that appears to be a UAV testing base. It was first noted by Nathan J. Hunt last year. The site was constructed in 2019 and includes a short runway, less than 100 meters long, a hangar, and either a previously unseen UAV model or a scale model of another type of aircraft. Further base construction also began this year. If this is a UAV base, it would be the only stand-alone drone development facility known in the public domain, that is, that wasn’t part of a factory or airbase.
Several North Korean reconnaissance drones have been spotted in South Korean territory, particularly since 2014, and the government has discussed the need to mass produce UAVs on more than one occasion. Current estimates for North Korea’s UAV inventory vary considerably but fall between 300 and 1,000 drones.
Growing Your Own
One other area that I would like to talk about is the military’s requirement to grow as much food for itself as possible.
This requirement was ordered by Kim Jong-il as a result of the famine, but ongoing food shortages has meant that the state still cannot provide enough rations to feed its own soldiers. Stories of soldiers going out and stealing from civilians still pop up, so it’s little wonder that the very look of many bases and even industrial sites has changed.
Much of this change can be charted through the last decade. Despite genuine improvements in the country’s food security under Kim Jong-un, the military still needs to grow its own food and is also required to grow specialty crops that can be sold to external markets to earn foreign currency for the regime.
KPA owned farms can be massive, like KPA Farm No. 1116 which has 368 hectares under cultivation. The farm also grows mushrooms that are sold abroad, earning money for the state. Underscoring the importance of this military farm, Kim Jong-un has visited it nearly every year since 2013.
But it's not just military-controlled, agricultural-specific sites that are involved in the farming business.
The nuclear test site at Punggye-ri extends for 17 km down the Namdae River valley. In multiple places, small farms can be seen comprising dozens of hectares under cultivation to support the needs of Punggye-ri’s personnel. This activity has continued despite the complex being “closed”.
The former high explosives test site at Yongbyon was converted into a garden in 2003 and a series of greenhouses were added nearby in 2013. Additional greenhouses and cultivated fields can be spotted throughout the walled compounds within Yongbyon, including greenhouses built in 2014 within the Radiochemistry Laboratory where spent fuel rods are reprocessed.
As for North Korea’s current high explosives test site at Yongdeok (40.002399° 125.339812°), a well-defined garden was added in 2019 and occupies 18,300 sq. m. Facilities at Yongdeok’s fish farm have also been improved in recent years.
These gardens and fields can be found at most KPA bases and even at air defense sites like surface-to-air missile batteries. Some examples of this can be seen at the Majon-ri base (39.122529° 127.128347°) in Kangwon Province where the housing units each have small garden plots while other parts of the base contain collective farms. And at this (38.406613° 127.359467°) unnamed base near the DMZ, a greenhouse was built in 2019/20 next to the munitions depot.
It’s not only things like rice or mushrooms that are being grown. Military-owned livestock facilities, fisheries and fish farms have proliferated. One of the largest is the Singchang Fish Farm which breeds sturgeon. It is operated by KPA Unit 810, the same unit that operates KPA Farm No. 1116 in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un has visited the site multiple times and in 2019 several of the ponds were extensively modified.
Inland fish farming is but one part of a large KPA fishing industry that also involves the military owning fleets of small fishing vessels. As discussed in the 2020 report Fish, Fishing and Community in North Korea and Neighbours, “In recent years, the fishing infrastructures and desires of North Korea’s central government have picked up again, and fishing has been reorganised into the institutional frameworks of the Korean People’s Army.”
Sadly, some of these vessels end up as “ghost ships” wandering into Japanese waters with a dead or missing crew.
Under Kim Jong-un, fields have become more organized, greenhouses have been added to improve yields and diversify the types of plants that can be grown, and attempts to earn illicit currency through military-controlled trade networks have continued.
In short, Kim has been trying to make the most of a bad situation.
The obstacles are enormous, from problems with the fitness of its manpower pool to a lack of modern technology and an inability to manufacture certain equipment and parts domestically, Kim has therefore been forced to redirect resources toward enhancing special operations forces training, building a better capacity to infiltrate targets and to engage in non-kinetic warfare through cyber (something not covered in this report), as well as attempt to improve the survivability of KPA forces via safety measures at airfields and constructing hardened facilities.
Although nuclear weapons guarantee regime survival, their use would also guarantee its end. To that end, North Korea needs a credible conventional deterrent as well to show that the price of even minor military action against Pyongyang could still result in overwhelming casualties, even if a nuclear bomb is never dropped.
Naturally, questions surround the ability of DPRK armed forces to adequately train its forces, particularly in the use of newer weapons that have been developed (such as semi-automatic grenade launchers, tank destroyers, and various multiple rocket launchers). As Liang Tuang Nah pointed out in The Diplomat, the bulk of training that gets shown to the world through official media consists of troops and equipment engaged in mass-firing exercises and air shows that look more like a performance than integrated training among the various branches or in ways applicable to real-world combat in the 21st century.
However, the country isn’t spending 25-30% of its GDP just on nuclear weapons and shooting off ancient ammunition. The massive build-up of training facilities includes opportunities for individual units to learn tank warfare, fire any number of artillery and rocket systems, and improve each individual soldier’s skill.
The hills of North Korea are pockmarked with chalk targets for aerial bombardment and ground-based artillery. Even whole islands have been designated for artillery practice. Although it is not possible to monitor all of the activities that occur by using commercial satellite imagery and while changes to doctrine, strategy, and interservice cooperation can only be glimpsed at through Pyongyang’s publications, the physical evidence is still there to inform us. And it’s telling us that Kim Jong-un has not created a paper tiger.
New weapons, improved training, and creative ways to finance North Korea’s conventional forces have created a qualitatively better armed service than in years past. Clearly, military parity with South Korea is a pipe dream on the technological front, but an army doesn’t have to be equal on paper to pose a real threat on the field. And even North Korea’s alleged inability to wage a long-term (6 months+) full-scale conflict due to a lack of fuel, food, and parts, drug lords in Mexico to terrorists in Afghanistan have shown that a prolonged conflict can be still carried out in the face of overwhelming odds.
Indeed, the Syrian Civil War and the recent 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have demonstrated that through the use of non-traditional strategies, electronic warfare, and through the targeted use of UAVs, that strategically significant actions can be effected.
By focusing on special operations, asymmetric capabilities, and cyber operations, Kim Jong-un is working to level the playing field. Again, the goal is not the KPA facing down South Korea in 20th century-style set-piece battles. The best-case goal is to deter and if that doesn’t work, to inflict as much damage as possible while prolonging the conflict until a set of key goals are accomplished (namely the capture of Seoul and delaying a US counterattack) so that a new “peace” can be settled on terms favorable to Pyongyang.
Kim is still a long, long way off, but the military (particularly the Army) is nonetheless better positioned now than it has been in a decade, both in terms of real power and in its ability to leverage threats to gain economic and political benefits.
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--Jacob Bogle, 10/31/2021