The 'Know Your Region' series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It's important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
THE KOREAS – MILITARY
On this page:
Republic of Korea (ROK) – Military
- General Information
- Engagement and Security Cooperation
- Military Technology and Defence Reform
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – Military
- General Information
- Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Capabilities
- Military Technology
- Cyber Operations
MILITARY – ROK
The ROK’s Armed Forces consists of Army, Navy and Air Force services. This includes special forces, a marine corps and a collective Reserve Force structure. The following recruiting video gives a quick overview of the three services:
All males in the ROK between the ages of 18 and 35 must complete military national service. In 2019, the conscription period was reduced from 21 months to 18 months. The following video describes one Korean’s experience and reflection on his two-year mandatory service in the Korean Army from 2009 to 2011.
In the past, conscientious objectors to national military service faced 18 months imprisonment. In November 2018, the Supreme Court of ROK agreed that conscientious objection was no longer punishable by law, and those who had genuine reason to object to military service can now serve in a civilian capacity in any government agency.
The ROK Army has over 6.5 million personnel enlisted into the Military in an active, reserve or paramilitary context. This is over 10% of the country’s population; in addition, over 50% of the country’s population is recognised and classed as available military manpower. This video gives some idea of the ROK’s current military power:
For more general information on the ROK’s Defence Force, see the resources below:
- SKAF show of force capability
- South Korean Armed Forces 2021
- South Korean Special Forces
- South Korean Navy UDT/SEAL Training - "Starvation Phase"
- South Korean Special Forces 2021 ‘Make Impossible Possible’
- Conscientious Objectors – No Longer Criminal
- Republic of Korea Navy 2020 (promotional video)
- Why South Korea's Rifle Squad is Getting Smaller
- What's new in the Korean military?
- Ultimate Guide to the Korean Military Enlistment (2018)
- ROK 2020 Defense White Paper (PDF)
- Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense
- South Korea’s Conventional Forces Buildup: The Search for Strategic Stability
- Korean Defence Reform: history and challenges
- South Korea’s Defense White Paper Strikes a Pragmatic Tone
- South Korea: Supreme Court Finds Conscientious Objection to Military Service Justifiable
- South Korea to pardon 1,800 conscientious objectors
- Conscientious Objectors Allowed to Complete Alternative Military Duty
Engagement and Security Cooperation
The SKDF has strong relationships with the US and Australia, both of whom have bilateral and trilateral agreements with Japan in support of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. This video is the US perspective on ROK’s active involvement in Ex TALISMAN SABRE 2021. It suggests that the exercise also enables opportunity to strengthen military cooperation for regional partners against the potential threat of China as it maintains its assertive presence in the East and South China Seas.
This year, 230 SKDF personnel supported the exercise, along with contingencies from other nations.
For further information on engagement, security cooperation and deterrence, see the resources below:
- U.S.-South Korea Military Training Must Press Forward
- South Korea aims to build aircraft carrier the country doesn’t need
- Not a Sovereignty Issue: Understanding the Transition of Military Operational Control between the United States and South Korea
- U.S.–South Korea OPCON Transition: The Element of Timing
- Is South Korea Beginning to Take More Responsibility for Its Own Security?
- South Korea Doesn’t Need U.S. Military Babysitting
- Australia and South Korea Can and Should Have Closer Defence Ties
- Korean Institute for Defense Analyses: New Southern Pollicy inc Defense Cooperation
- Is South Korea Going Global? New Possibilities Together With the Biden Administration
Military Technology and Defence Reform
The ROK Ministry of National Defense implemented ‘Defence Reform 2.0’ in early 2019 to modernise its Armed Forces over a five-year period with the intent of making the force more efficient and effective, but is also in part, planning as a response to the country’s low birth rate.
To achieve this, the government has increased the Defence budget to AU$240 billion. Over the duration of the reform, a restructure of rank and positions will occur, and where the Army will see reductions, both Navy and Air Force will see small increases. The reform will also result in a significant salary increase for soldiers, an increase in women in the organisation and a reduction in non-combatant positions.
These videos give a broad explanation of the intended outcomes of the reforms, and one opinion on the rationale behind them:
Under the Defence Reform 2.0, ROK Ministry of Defense has approved development of new weapon systems. The following videos give more detail on some of the ROK’s new and planned military technology:
For more information on ROK Military Technology, see the resources below:
- South Korea unveils KF-X prototype
- ROK reform keys on force development, troop reconfiguration
- Defence Reform 2.0: spending on Indigenous Defense Manufacturers South Korea Can Now Build Missiles Able to Reach Beijing, With U.S. Blessing
- South Korea accelerating development of advanced weapons systems
- South Korea launches new military technology agency (please call 1800 DEFENCE (1800 333 362) to obtain a group login)
- South Korea Builds the new KF-X Jet Fighter
- 2021 South Korea Military Strength
- South Korea’s Military Needs Bold Reforms to Overcome a Shrinking Population
- South Korea’s Military Problems
MILITARY – DPRK
The Supreme Commander of the DPRK armed forces, and chairman of the Central Military Commission, is President Kim Jong-Un, who sits above the Korean People’s Army (KPA) five branches: The Ground Force, the Navy, the Air and Anti-Air Force, the Strategic Rocket Force, and the Special Operation Force. Although North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, its military expenditure accounts for just under a quarter of its GDP, ranking it first in the world in terms of military spending. It was estimated in 2019 to be around US$3.6 billion per annum.
The DPRK Armed Forces command structure is detailed below:
The KPA is the world’s fourth largest conventional force, with around 5% of the population serving. This amounts to about 1.3million troops, with another 600,000 reserve soldiers. The US Department of Defence 2017 Annual Rport to Congress on North Korea detailed ORBAT and disposition for each of the ground, naval and air forces as follows:
The KPA Ground Force is reported to be deployed in three echelons:
Forward Operational Echelon: 4 x Infantry Corps
Second Operational Echelon: 2 x Mechanised Corps, 1 x Armoured Corps, 1 x Artillery Corps
A Strategic Reserve: 2 x Mechanised Corps, 1 x Artillery Corps
As the “Songun Chongch’i” or military-first politics of the DPRK prioritises military spending over economic development, it has increased the role of the KPA in daily life, including more participation in social and economic decision-making, from large-scale infrastructure development to providing its own food. Military personnel will spend most of their military service participating in different areas of the country’s socio-economic life.
While men are mandated to serve within the military for 10 years and women for 8 years, this has recently been revised for economic reasons, as this short video explains:
For more general information on the KPA, see the resources below:
- North Korea military strength 2020
- North Korean military power (2019)
- North Korea midnight military parade
- How strong is North Korea’s military?
- North Korea military among world’s largest
- North Korean Special Forces – these are not people but robots
- The messed-up hierarchy of the North Korean army
- State TV shows North Korean soldiers shooting at a paper
- North Korean Navy are ready for Defense
- The horrible things North Korean soldiers have to go through
- 12 Shocking facts about North Korean soldiers
- North Korean Tactics 2020 (US Army Publication)
- North Koreas military capabilities
- The state of the North Korean military
- 2021 North Korea military strength
- North Korea’s military: How does it actually stack up?
- North Korea Security Apparatus
- Rape and no periods in North Korea’s Army
- What’s to know about life as a soldier in Kim Jong-Un’s Army
Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Capabilities
Although the extent of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, and the size of its stockpile are unclear, it is estimated that Pyongyang may have a number of nuclear weapons assembled. US intelligence officials estimated that the DPRK has sufficient fissile material to assemble sixty five weapons, with sufficient fissile material produced annually to build 12 additional weapons.
Since the 1980’s, the DPRK has carried out over 147 tests with different short, medium, intermediate missiles, as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), with tests as recent as March 2021.
In 2017, the regime successfully tested ICBMs capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead. Pyongyang said that its Hwasong-15 ICBM, flew to an altitude of 4,475km for about 1,000km before landing in the sea off Japan. Analysts estimate with a flatter firing trajectory, the Hwasong-15 could travel 13,000km which puts both the U.S. and Australian mainland within range.
This ABC video details the ranges of each of the DPRK missile types:
For further information on the DPRK’s nuclear program and international reaction, see the resources below:
- World reacts to North Korea nuclear tests
- World leaders react to North Korean hydrogen bomb test
- North Korea unveils new ICBM in midnight parade
- North Korea ready to resume nuclear talks
- North Korea fires two more unidentified projectiles
- What would happen if North Korea launched a nuclear weapon?
- US waits for North Korea to make next move on nuclear talks
- North Korea demands sanctions ease to restart nuclear talks with the US
- North Korea: what we know about its missile and nuclear programme
- North Korea’s nuclear weapons program
- Chronology of US/North Korea nuclear weapons diplomacy
- The Korean Peninsula: three dangerous scenarios
- North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs
- North Korea has more nuclear weapons than ever. What should Biden do?
- North Korea’s nuclear weapons expand deterrence, risk
The DPRK military has more than 1,300 aircraft, nearly 300 helicopters, 430 combatant vessels, 250 amphibious vessels, 70 submarines, 4,300 tanks, 2,500 armoured vehicles, and 5,500 multiple-rocket launchers. While this is considerable from the perspective of quantity, the quality of military technology and equipment may fall short of the mark. That said, the strategic deployment of KPA conventional artillery is worth mentioning, particularly the estimated 6000 artillery pieces are reportedly aimed at targets in the ROK, and which it is assessed, can cause significant casualties if used. This detailed RAND PDF document gives more information on the KPA artillery systems:
Notwithstanding the technological advances with the DPRK’s missile program, particularly regarding the Pukguksong 4 SLBM, many of the KPA weapon systems were purchased between the 1950s and the 1980s or are based on older Chinese and Russian designs and are thus outdated.
For more information on DPRK Military Technology, see the resources below:
The DPRK has invested heavily in Cyber, and is reported to have over 6,000 hackers, who have been responsible for the theft of millions of dollars, as well as a number disinformation, espionage and other cybercrime. Some have described the cyber threat from DPRK’s ‘Bureau 121’ to be more significant than its nuclear threat.
DPRK cyber operations are described in this video:
For more information on DPRK cyber capabilities, see the resources below:
- The incredible rise of North Korea’s Hacking Army
- North Korean military hackers indicted
- North Koreas military has stolen more than half a billion in crypto currencies
- Bureau 121: How good are Kim Jong-un’s elite hackers?
- North Korea’s Bureau 121 has an army of 6000 hackers
- US Army report says many North Korean hackers operate from abroad
- Office 91, Bureau 110 and 121
- The all-purpose sword: North Korea’s Cyber operations and strategies
- The ROK has a highly technical and well-trained military. However, it still relies on the significant US presence as part of its wider military strategy which is focused on countering North Korean belligerence. What would the ROK need to do if the US decides to re-posture its forces to other areas in the region, away from the Korean Peninsula? What chance does the ROK have in a direct conflict with North Korea, that doesn’t involve US support?
- DPRK military strength has typically resided in its million-man army, which still relies on doctrine that involves human waves in any offensive assaults. With ROK citizens being exposed to western influences, does its population have the appetite to be involved in such strategies today?
- Engagement between the ADF and ROK forces has gradually increased in the past few years, with a ROK presence at the recently concluded TS21 exercise. Should Australia and the ROK engage in greater military cooperation? What would the benefits and risks of this be? What are the greatest regional threats faced by both nations that should encourage greater interaction?
- Sabre rattling by North Korea is often demonstrated through its missile tests. Although these tests often fail, they also show slow improvement in technological development. Does the west need to draw a line in the sand in regard to missile advancements by the DPRK, particularly considering that it seeks to nuclearise some of these missiles? What does this mean for Australia as the DPRK develops missiles that can reach Australia?
- The ROK’s main military strategy for 70 years has revolved around deterring and defeating a belligerent DPRK. However, with China growing in size and looking to exert greater authority in the Indo-Pacific region, does the ROK need to shift its military strategy? What impact will its alliance with the US, and the US’s own regional strategy, have on the ROK’s decision makers?