Sometime in June, a North Korean pilot taxied his supersonic fighter to the runway for a routine training flight. The pilot, one of North Korea’s military elite, powered up his engines and took off with a roar from Koksan Air Base. Moments later, his plane tumbled out of the sky.
It was the second North Korean MiG-19 crash this summer, and the third in 2014. The mighty North Korean People’s Army is crumbling. Is the ruling Kim dynasty next?
In the aftermath of the Korean War, North Korea built up a large military. The goal was to reunify North and South Korea — by force if necessary. The Soviet Union, happy to tie down American troops garrisoning South Korea, lavishly outfitted the North Korean military with tanks, artillery, submarines, fighters, and other military hardware.
The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and military aid to Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un, dried up to virtually nothing. The new Russian government was not interested in socialist charity and wanted cash for weapons. The North Korean Army began to feel the pinch.
Nearly 25 years later, the North Korean People’s Army, Navy, and Air Force are relics of a different era. Nearly everything is obsolete. North Korean tanks and armored fighting vehicles are up to 50 years old. This summer, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was photographed onboard an old Romeo-class submarine, an antiquated design first produced in the 1950s. The North Korean Air Force is only slightly better off; its newest fighter jets are now 25 years old (most are closer to 50).
Not only is the equipment obsolete, it’s becoming unusable. Late last year during naval exercises, two North Korean People’s Navy patrol boats sank within days of each other, killing tens of North Korean sailors. On June 24, a helicopter exploded in midair.
One major problem: North Korean equipment is so old nobody makes spare parts anymore. For years the military has cannibalized some equipment in order to keep the rest running. The fact that three MiG-19s have crashed in the span of seven months is a strong indication that cannibalization is no longer working and entire types of equipment are overdue for a trip to the junk heap.
Kim Jong Un himself was considered responsible for the MiG crashes. Kim had allegedly pushed the military to train hard, countering U.S.-South Korean military exercises that were going on at the same time. The subsequent crashes created the opposite impression: instead of projecting strength, the North Korean military now appears very weak. Could Kim Jong Un find himself the victim of a military coup?
As part of a totalitarian regime, the North Korean military enjoys political power and influence far beyond what Western militaries do. Dictators often find themselves wooing and feting the generals running the military, since they alone have the power to overthrow them. North Korea is no different, and the national policy of Songun, or “military first,” has meant the armed forces have first priority over national resources. Songun is why the North Korean People’s Army is as large as it is, but it’s also precisely why the military is falling apart.
The prioritization of the military over civilian sectors has run the North Korean economy into the ground. To give you an idea of the scope of the failure, North Korea has a population of 24 million and trillions in untapped natural resources. Despite that, North Korea’s gross domestic product (the total worth of goods and services produced by the country) is roughly the same as North Dakota’s, a state with only 700,000 people.
After decades of living beyond its means, the North Korean leadership is trapped: Even if it were to reverse Songun, the military wouldn’t be better off in the short term — things would get much worse before the economy could afford a military even a tenth the current size. And of all of Kim Jong Un’s options, drastically shrinking the size of the army is probably the one that would guarantee a revolt by his generals.
Nevertheless, a military coup is unlikely. One party rule and the suppression of internal dissent means there is a lack of a credible alternative for the military to back. The military could impose a junta of senior military officers but thanks to Songun, it already is getting the best deal it can.
Like the Kim regime itself, the military simply has no good choices. The North Korean People’s Army will likely continue to back the Kim regime and march into oblivion.