North Korea Has A Massive Military, And It May Be Growing

A state-run newspaper reports nearly 5 million people volunteered to enlist or reenlist in the Korean People's Army in the past few days.
Posted at 5:21 PM, Sep 30, 2017

As tension between North Korea and the United States has gone from a steady simmer toward a rolling boil, state media reports millions of North Koreans are ready to fight.

state-run newspaper reported nearly 5 million people volunteered to enlist or reenlist in the Korean People's Army in the past few days. 

That report hasn't been verified, so take it with a grain of salt. The Washington Post notes similar claims have coincided with escalating foreign tensions in the past.

But even without new or renewed enlistments, North Korea's army is believed to be the fourth largest in the world. It's estimated to have more than a million active soldiers — 4 to 5 percent of the total population of roughly 25 million. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates another 25 to 30 percent are "assigned to a reserve or paramilitary unit." 

Part of that massive size is due to the fact that North Korean men and women are required to serve in the military. They face longer conscription terms than anywhere else in the world.

Draft aside, a massive influx of volunteers would line up with some of the guiding principles entrenched in the Hermit Kingdom.

The country has long functioned around the idea of "juche," which means "self-reliance." The idea presents the North Korean people as the master of their own fate and the ruling party as the revolutionary tool.

In the 1990s, former leader Kim Jong-il pushed a greater emphasis on "songun," or "military-first" policy. According to U.S. analysis, that move enshrined the army as the "ultimate defender of the country's sovereignty."

But that policy led to a massive amount of resources directed to the army at the expense of the North Korean people.

Rather than devote resources away from the armed forces after several bad harvests, Kim Jong-il accepted food aid from the international community — but only after somewhere between several hundred thousand and a million North Koreans died. 

And now, Kim Jong-un — the third leader in the Kim family regime — has elevated the nation's nuclear program and economic development as top priorities, despite warnings the country could face a food shortage. 

In July, the United Nations warned recent droughts could cause food insecurity in North Korea, and there are reports that even the military is struggling to feed its soldiers. 

But despite North Korea's goal of self-reliance and a focus on its military prowess, its leadership might again turn to diplomacy rather than war. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Saturday the U.S. had direct lines of communication to Pyongyang. Whether or not North Korea officials are also using those lines, Tillerson didn't say.