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.


On this page:

Republic of Korea (ROK) – Military

  • Summary
  • General Information
  • Engagement and Security Cooperation
  • Military Technology and Defence Reform

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – Military

  • Summary
  • General Information
  • Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Capabilities
  • Military Technology
  • Cyber Operations




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.


General Information

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:


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:


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:




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:

DPRK Armed Forces command structure.



General Information

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:

  1. Forward Operational Echelon: 4 x Infantry Corps
  2. Second Operational Echelon: 2 x Mechanised Corps, 1 x Armoured Corps, 1 x Artillery Corps
  3. 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:


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.

North Korea fires two ballistic missiles into the sea (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:


Military Technology

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:

North Korean Conventional Artillery

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:


Cyber Operations

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:


Discussion Questions:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?