December 17, 2021, marks 10 years since the death of North Korea leader Kim Jong Il who had headed the country’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party for 17 years since 1994. The Korean leader’s death was widely hailed in the West at the time as heralding a new era in the country, with widespread predictions either of instability and decline as the ruling party and armed forces struggled for power, or else that his successor would bring the country closer to the West with reforms resembling the USSR’s Gorbachev or the initial years under Syria’s Bashar Al Assad. Multiple North Korea experts in the West even projected that internal conflict after Kim Jong Il’s death could lead to a U.S.-led invasion to overthrow the ruling party, secure the country’s nuclear arsenal and maintain a long occupation. As it was Western analysts were surprised by the stability and smoothness of the succession process, with predictions having generally underrated the power of the party as a governing institution relative to the individual leader. In the ten years that followed North Korea would quickly consolidate its position both economically, with signs of sustained growth and greater prosperity relative to the previous decade, as well as its security situation with significant improvements made to the capabilities of the Korean People’s Army (KPA).
At the time of Kim Jong Il’s death North Korea had conducted just two nuclear weapons tests, one in 2006 and one in 2009, and its ability to deliver these beyond the range of its artillery systems was in doubt. The country’s air defence network, although heavily fortified, relied overwhelmingly on armaments acquired from the Soviet Union in the 1980s, most notably S-200 systems which had impressive 300km ranges but lacked the mobility or versatility of newer systems. Other than a single reported test firing in Iran of the Musudan missile in 2005, which preceded the export of these missiles, North Korea had yet to test a single intermediate range ballistic missile and relied overwhelmingly on heavily modified and enhanced variants of the Soviet Scud. The equipment in the country’s ground forces and artillery units was overwhelmingly from the Cold War era, with even uniforms and handheld weapons having changed little since the 1980s. In the decade after 2011, however, as the economic crisis years of the 1990s were left further behind, the country would see a rate of economic and particularly military modernisation that was wholly unprecedented.
At the centre of North Korea’s military modernisation efforts in the post-Kim Jong Il era was the country’s strategic arsenal, with nuclear warheads detonated underground in 2013, twice in 2016 and once in 2017 and the country progressing from fission to thermonuclear fusion weapons which were orders of magnitude more powerful. By the end of 2017 the maximum range of the country’s ballistic missiles in service had increased almost ninefold relative to six years prior, with the Hwasong-15 estimated to have a 13,000km range placing New York within firing range. The Rodong-1, an enlarged Scud with a 400% greater range, was previously the country’s top strategic weapon with a 1500km range. The Rodong had entered service from 1994 and was a revolutionary improvement for its time which placed U.S. bases across Japan in range, although it would be several years before miniaturised nuclear warheads were developed to equip it. The first major improvement to the country’s strategic arsenal was the Musudan missile which was tested intensively in 2016 with a 4000km range placing U.S. facilities on Guam in its crosshairs, and was used as a basis to develop the more capable Hwasong-12 which entered service in 2017 providing a robust upper-intermediate range strike capability. The country also introduced solid fuelled long range missiles, namely the Pukkuksong series of submarine launched ballistic missiles from 2016 which were followed by land based derivatives. The most recent addition to the country’s arsenal, and one of the most notable, was the Hwasong-8 which paired a booster rocket from the Hwasong-12 with a hypersonic glide vehicle. This made the country the second in the world to field tactical ground launched hypersonic glide vehicles and the third with any kind of hypersonic glide vehicles after China and Russia.
Improvements to conventional forces have affected all areas other than the air force’s fighter fleet, which is the only major area where the country’s own defence sector cannot provide new generations of complete systems. The Korean People’s Army’s appearance changed drastically over ten years, as perhaps best symbolised by the new equipment and uniforms of its special forces, with new tanks, rocket artillery systems, personnel carriers and air defence systems among other assets all entering service. The KPA has increasingly heavily emphasised highly mobile assets, with the most notable additions being new generations of anti ship cruise missile launchers namely the Kumsong-3, and two generations of long range surface to air missile. These kinds of asymmetric assets have been relied on to heavily compensate for the lack of a modern naval surface fleet or fighter fleet. The country’s defence sector is also thought to have benefitted from greater cooperation with neighbouring China and Russia as their relations with the Western world declined in the 2010s and both sought to strengthen their respective northern and eastern flanks, with a stronger KPA acting as a buffer against the U.S. and its allies. North Korea reached a number of new agreements for defence cooperation with both countries, and improved ties were perhaps best reflected by the major exercises both Russian and Chinese forces undertook near the Korean Peninsula in 2017 which were interpreted as signals to the U.S. that an attack on their neighbour would not be tolerated .
While the Kim Jong Il era saw North Korea make early breakthroughs in its nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile programs and acquire the beginnings of a strategic deterrent, as well as surviving the immense economic and military pressure of the 1990s and early 2000s when the country came closest in its history to collapse, the decade that followed saw the KPA’s defence capabilities revolutionised. Although no longer having the USSR as a treaty ally, or the dynamic industrial base it did in the 1980s, North Korea’s security situation and its ability to deter possible U.S. attacks without allied support have improved drastically since 2011 and are the best they have been since the country’s founding in 1948. As tensions between the United States and China become increasingly central to shaping global affairs, North Korea as China’s treaty ally will likely be closer to the centre of international conflict and could well receive more support from Beijing accordingly. China’s emergence as the world’s largest economy has also done much to lessen the impact of Western economic sanctions and thus benefited Korean economic security, and as a result its defence as well. While the KPA’s future depends heavily on the country’s ability to sustain economic growth, current trends indicate that North Korea’s security situation will continue to improve with time.