by Robert Farley · March 12, 2018
Much has been made of the size of the Korean People’s Army, and of the looming threat that it (and particularly its artillery) pose to the most densely populated regions of South Korea. But a fixation on the enormous size of the KPA has served to obscure the reality of its increasing technological backwardness. At a time when South Korea and the United States are openly discussing the prospect of North Korean denuclearization, the abject obsolescence of North Korea’s conventional forces could prove an obstacle to any diplomatic breakthroughs.
Collapse of Conventional North Korean Capabilities
From the 1950s until the 1980s, the North Korea military was relatively well-capitalized, supplementing substantial transfers from China and the Soviet Union with its own arms industry. These transfers usually included second-rate equipment, but given how North Korea had organized its military forces, the pursuit of a massive quantitative edge over South Korea and the United States made sense.
But North Korea has not made a major purchase of conventional weapons since the 1990s, aside from the import of a few missiles and support products from Russia. This came in context of Russian defense-industrial base (DIB) that had become, at the time, desperate for export opportunities. Yet North Korea failed to avail itself of these opportunities, largely because it had decided to refocus its national defense around nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
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This was not an unreasonable decision, given the trajectory of South Korean conventional capabilities. By the 1990s, the South Korean defense industry was producing increasingly sophisticated equipment, often in collaboration with major American firms, and concomitant technology transfer. Today, South Korea is a major player on both the export and import sides of the arms market, while North Korea has almost completely disappeared. North Korea’s domestic production, apart from ballistic missiles, small arms and some small naval vessels, has badly atrophied, which risks a near complete collapse of some core capabilities (particularly aviation) in the near future.
History on the Export Market
During the Cold War, the North Korean DIB largely focused on producing equipment for domestic use, rather than contributing heavily to broader networks of production and distribution across the socialist world. This began to change in the 1980s, as North Korea developed strong export relationships with both Syria and Iran, transferring ballistic missiles, rockets, artillery and even main battle tanks. Iran could find few other sellers at the time, and Syria (along with a few others) was happy to take advantage of the low costs. But after this relative heyday, North Korean exports virtually collapsed in the 2000s. The reasons for this included both the increasingly backward nature of North Korean technology, and the regime’s status as an international pariah. The collapse in conventional arms shipments exacerbated North Korea’s economic situation, making it even more dependent upon the success of its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
Instead, North Korea has focused its domestic efforts on the development of nuclear and ballistic-missile technology, assisted at times through an infusion of technology from outside sources. With respect to ballistic missiles, North Korea also played an active role in the export market until the early 2000s, and is suspected to have offered parts and technical support to several countries interested in developing their own programs.
On nuclear weapons, North Korea both enjoyed the support of illicit international networks involved in the transfer of nuclear technology, and enthusiastically participated in transfer to other countries. While there is little reason to believe that North Korea would ever transfer an entire weapon, it has been an active proliferator of technology. North Korea is also widely suspected of exporting chemical weapons production know how.
More recently, North Korean activity has focused on the illicit transfer of small arms, including firearms, rocket propelled grenades, and even surface-to-air missiles. UN sanctions have banned such activity, and the international community has taken active (if intermittent) steps to monitor North Korean efforts.
Recapitalization of NORK
If we can imagine a future in which some of the restrictions on North Korean imports and exports are loosened, then we’re left with . . . not much to build on. North Korea lacks an aviation industry capable of producing anything beyond spare parts, and indeed would struggle to compete in any conventional category apart perhaps from miniature submarines. Even North Korean main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers are at least a generation behind international standards. That’s adequate for keeping the Korean People’s Army equipped with arms, but mainly because the KPA exists as a work program and ideological conditioning association for young North Korean men.
North Korea’s dreadful conventional situation makes it less likely that Pyongyang will makes serious, long-range concessions on its nuclear or ballistic-missile programs. To restore its conventional capabilities, North Korea would either have to import new, advanced systems from Russia or China (at a time when those systems are becoming more expensive) or recapitalize its own defense industry. This is a daunting prospect—especially in the area of aviation.
North Korea’s ability to contribute on the international arms-export market has become starkly limited. Having always trailed behind Russian and Chinese arms in sophistication, the DPRK is now at least two generations behind the international state of the art. With even relatively poor countries having access to equipment such as Russian-built Flankers, it’s hard to imagine North Korea ever having an impact on the most lucrative parts of the arms trade.
But if North Korea still wants to leverage its arms industry to generate hard currency, it can think in terms of ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, and nuclear technology. Unfortunately for Pyongyang, all of these families of systems are under strict export control, meaning that even if Kim comes to some accommodation with President Trump, a loosening of restrictions is unlikely.
North Korea’s conventional vulnerability exacerbates this problem. Without its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, North Korea would have to at least think seriously about recapitalizing its conventional forces. But it seems to have very little serious opportunity to do so, given the paucity of its exports and its limited access to hard currency. In effect, North Korea’s decision to give up on conventional capabilities in lieu of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems may have had sharply curtailed its future options, both as an exporter and in terms of its ability to defend itself.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Information Dissemination and the Diplomat.