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North Korea’s bloated armed forces outnumber those of its southern neighbour by a large margin. When it comes to soldiers and artillery pieces, North Korea enjoys a two-to-one advantage over its old enemy.
Yet an abundance of soldiers carrying light arms does not translate into military dominance. North Korea’s armed forces might be immense, but their weapons and equipment are largely obsolete.
On paper, the Stalinist state’s air force possesses 563 combat-capable aircraft; in reality, every one of these planes was grounded for a short period in 2014 thanks to problems with maintenance and serviceability.
“North Korea remains reliant on a predominantly obsolescent equipment inventory across all three services,” is the verdict of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The fact that North Korea is outclassed in almost every field of conventional warfare means that its threats against the South are almost always expressed in terms of “sending down a rain of fire” or some such Pyongyang-like language. It has been assumed for decades that a war would be triggered by a pre-emptive attack using the North’s large arsenal of missiles, notably a variant of the old Soviet Scud, on the South’s cities and civilian population.
The army has 21,000 artillery pieces, many of which are believed to be targeted on the South Korean capital, Seoul.
South Korea’s much smaller armed forces, by contrast, benefit from some of the best American-supplied weapons and equipment, including more than 2,000 tanks and hundreds of F5, F15 and F16 fighter jets and fighter bombers.
More importantly, it nestles under the US security umbrella, and there are 28,500 American troops permanently based in the South.
Its army moreover is better-fed - a factor which while reminiscent of a previous era to European armies remains significant in North Korea, where defectors often talk of the debilitating experience of hunger during their own military service.
This imbalance also helps to explain why the North Korean regime has gone to such lengths to build a nuclear arsenal. Only by possessing the ultimate weapon can North Korea’s rulers seize an advantage over the South and insure themselves against military defeat.
In the last decade, North Korea has progressed from deploying a handful of crude atomic bombs to possessing a fully fledged arsenal, consisting of up to 20 nuclear warheads capable of being loaded on short and medium range missiles.
North Korea is now trying to master the ability to launch nuclear missiles from submarines, a development that would, in theory, allow the country to strike the United States.
If they could be hidden on board submarines, North Korea's nuclear weapons would also become immune from destruction by a pre-emptive attack.
In September, nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, the source of fissile material used in the country's atomic weapons programme, were said by Pyongyang to be in full operation.
"All the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon including the uranium enrichment plant and 5 MW graphite-moderated reactor were rearranged, changed or readjusted and they started normal operation," KCNA news agency said, quoting the director of its atomic agency.
"If the US and other hostile forces persistently seek their reckless hostile policy towards the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] and behave mischievously, the DPRK is fully ready to cope with them with nuclear weapons any time," the director was quoted as saying.
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