By Sakurai Norio
SEOUL – A study conducted by a South Korean expert found that North Korea is intensively assigning Korean People’s Army recruits to the Strategic Rocket Force, which controls the nation’s nuclear weapons and missiles. The North is assigning fewer recruits to the conventional army, navy, and air force, and is mobilizing recruits to develop the nation’s economy. It will soon be ten years since Workers’ Party of Korea General Secretary Kim Jong Un took over supreme power following the death of his predecessor, Kim Jong Il. The threat posed by the North Korean military to Japan and South Korea continues to grow.
Kim Young-hwan, a researcher at the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, a private organization in South Korea, obtained internal information regarding the North’s recruitment this year through a collaborator in North Korea. According to the information, roughly one-third of all recruits are deployed to the Strategic Rocket Force, another one-third are mobilized to a construction unit responsible for building apartments and the like, and the final one-third are believed to be assigned to the conventional army, navy, and air force.
Kim Jong Un has focused on expanding the Strategic Rocket Force since he assumed supreme command of the military in December 2011. In its 2020 defense whitepaper, the Ministry of National Defense of South Korea revealed that the numerical strength of the North’s strategic force exceeded 10,000 and the number of missile brigades under the strategic force increased from 9 to 13 [in 2020]. “North Korea has no choice but to focus on nuclear weapons and missiles because it can’t catch up with the U.S. and South Korea in conventional weapons,” points out Korea Defense Diplomacy Association President Kwon Tae-hwan, who serves as a member of a policy advisory committee to the South Korean military.
Kim Young-hwan believes that the North’s real intention is to reduce spending on maintaining troops, as it is gradually burdening the economy. North Korea is estimated to have a total of 1.28 million soldiers. Service for men has traditionally been between eight and nine years and that for women between six and seven years. According to a South Korean intelligence organization, however, in 2021 the North reduced the length of military service by up to two years. Kim Young-hwan also says that the number of soldiers may fall below one million.
Kim Jong Un won the removal of sanctions in negotiations with the U.S. and has crafted a strategy of focusing on building the economy. But the breakdown of the U.S.-North Korea summit held in the Vietnamese city of Hanoi in February 2019 made it difficult for Pyongyang to quickly reduce its troops. It may be safe to say that the North took the desperate measure of mobilizing recruits for building the economy in order to allocate human resources to the economy while essentially maintaining the scale of troops overall.
Meanwhile, the North is believed to have some 200,000 soldiers in its Special Operations Force, which is prepared to raid the South in an contingency, and to also have roughly 6,800 cyber warfare specialists. Korea Institute of Liberal Democracy President Yoo Dong-ryul, who is familiar with North Korean military affairs, explains, “The North is shifting to elitism by deploying elite soldiers to the strategic and special forces while allocating excess solders to building the nation’s economy.” This trend, along with the diversification of missiles achieved by the North’s repeated test flights, is increasing the military threat posed to Japan and South Korea.