N. Korean military looking pretty decrepit these days.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons development is blazing ahead, but series of reports from North Korea suggest that its conventional forces are decaying, ill-disciplined, and even underfunded.

First, a Hainan Class submarine chaser and a patrol boat sank in separate incidents off the coast of Wonsan (or, maybe the two ships collided; hey, it’s North Korea — who knows?). North Korea admits the loss of the 60s-vintage sub chaser. The North hasn’t given a casualty count, but showed Kim Jong un laying flowers at a collection of 15-20 graves. South Korea said that “scores” of North Korean sailors died in the incident.


[Hainan Class sub chaser of the Bangladeshi Navy]

Second, the Chosun Ilbo passes on reports of mysterious fires at an arms factory in North Pyongan Province, and aboard a train carrying military goods through Ryanggang Province. The report raises the possibility of sabotage, or an attack against the regime, but the two locations are far from each other, making it less likely (though not impossible) that the incidents were coordinated. No basis is offered to support this theory.

Third, a report from a South Korean think tank claim that corruption is rampant in the North Korean military, with soldiers even willing to sell state secrets or, for a fee of $40 to $60, carry refugees out of the country. Reports of corruption in the North Korean military certainly aren’t new. The North Korean military periodically cycles units out of border areas after soldiers get too cozy with smugglers. I wonder if this means we’ll see a rebound in defections after last year’s decline due to the border crackdown.

The fourth, and most dubious, set of reports (sourced to the Syrian opposition) claims that North Korean pilots are in Syria, flying helicopters for Assad. Syria may be the most dangerous place in the world to fly a helicopter today:

Although the North no doubt appreciates the chance to get its pilots some flying hours and combat experience in time for the North Korean Civil War, this would (if true) also signal financial desperation. North Korea never does anything for free, after all, but it can be blithely ignorant about countervailing financial risks. A dead or captured North Korean pilot would be awfully conspicuous in Syria, and a prisoner or a body would undoubtedly give people like me more ammunition to call for tighter financial sanctions.

Still, I’ve learned over the years that nothing is beyond the North Koreans, no matter how illogical it may seem to us.

North Korea historically spends lavishly on showpiece military projects and acquisitions, even if it often seems to skimp on basics like food, pay, fuel, spare parts, and training.


  1. I never heard of the Hainan class, so I looked it up. It seems the early version had Skin Head radar, which has been replaced by Pot Head radar. I assume the ship that sank had Skin Head.


  2. Strangely enough, ye olde KCNA saw fit to explicitly refute the fires in the borderland areas news/rumor. Since you have plenty of readers in the ROK and the piece isn’t that long, hopefully it is OK to include below?

    I found it interesting that KCNA did an “investigation” and that the “rumor” was put in place to slow down North Korea’s allegedly super-hot drive for foreign investment (the state of which is the subject of your other excellent post today). At any rate, thanks for the analysis.


    >November 6. 2013 Juche 102
    S. Korean Media’s False Reports about DPRK

    Pyongyang, November 6 (KCNA) — Yonhap News and other south Korean media on Oct. 29 reported that there were a series of fires and explosions on a train carrying munitions in Ryanggang Province bordering China and at munitions factories in North Phyongan Province in September and early in October.
    In April, 2004 they spread the false report that there occurred a large explosion of a train with missile parts onboard at Ryongchon Railway Station in Ryongchon County.

    In this regard, KCNA on Tuesday looked into the relevant field to check. The result was that there has not been a single accident involving munitions trains across the country nor fire and explosion at factories in North Phyongan Province this year.

    Then why does the Park Geun Hye regime spread the false story about a series of “explosions” in the DPRK through conservative media? Its real aim is to create impressions about “instability” in the DPRK, dampen the atmosphere of investment and cooperation by the international community and tarnish the image of the DPRK in the drive for building an economic power.

    The south Korean puppet group of conservatives, much displeased with the dynamic advance of the DPRK, activated such venal trumpeters as Yonhap News to breed anti-DPRK plots. They also spread all sorts of rumors to make them established facts, doing harm to others.

    This simple fact proves how desperately the Park Geun Hye group resorts to the sinister scheme despite its lip-service for “confidence-building”.


  3. I have seen videos Of Syrian government fighters. It would be can upgrade of what Pyongyang has. Putin wanted to ship ROK natural gas at lower prices through a pipeline. What ever happened to that suggestion?