File photo: A N. Korean soldier looks at S. Korea across the Korean Military Demarcation Line (MDL) separating South and North Korea, on December 28, 2011 in Panmunjom, S. Korea.
What weapons does North Korea have?
03:43 - Source: CNN

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North Korea is holding a large, highly choreographed military parade on October 10

The parade will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the ruling communist Worker's Party

Artillery and armored vehicles will be on display, providing rare insight into North Korea's military

CNN  — 

North Korea is proud of its “Songun,” or military-first approach to government, and the full extent of the country’s might be showcased in a lavish display to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party on October 10.

Previous parades – and highly publicized rocket launches – have provided a rare glimpse into the size and structure of the reclusive nation’s military capabilities. Satellite imagery of preparations purport to show this parade is likely to be one of the largest in the nation’s history.

Hundreds of trucks and armored vehicles are already in position and tens of thousands of soldiers are expected to parade through the streets of the capital, Pyongyang, in a carefully choreographed show of strength and celebration.

“We’ve seen quite a lot of developments in North Korean artillery over the past few years. They’ve brought out a new long-range rocket, a 300mm rocket, which seems to have much greater range,” James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly told CNN Friday. “They’ve tested it and they’re starting to test cruise missiles.”

Yet while North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, will be hoping to impress the international media and foreign guests he has invited with his bravado, just how large and advanced is North Korea’s military?

A large but hungry army

North Korea’s population of 25 million is half that of its adversary and neighbor to the south, but that hasn’t stopped it amassing a huge army.

It has more than 1.2 million active soldiers, and a further 7.7 million in reserve, making North Korea’s ground force one of the largest in the world. Its troops are bolstered by 200,000 highly-trained paramilitary soldiers, so in terms of pure numbers, North Korea has an immediate advantage.

However, the army is also the impoverished nation’s biggest employer and despite their preferential access to resources, North Korean soldiers outside of the paramilitary are underpaid and often underfed.

Malnourishment has made them far smaller than South Korean fighters, and Hardy said reports of soldiers running black market operations to supplement their meager income is common. It’s a disadvantage he said that is compounded by the inflexibility of the force and a lack of leadership and motivation common among armies of totalitarian regimes.

“And so yes, they have more numbers, but what are they fighting for?” Hardy asked. “There’s an argument going on at the moment that the South Koreans have an awful lot to fight for with the way they have built their country up over the past 70 years from poverty to one of the world’s big economies. What’s your average soldier in North Korea defending?”

Unknown nuclear capabilities

North Korea has amassed a vast stockpile of artillery and Hardy says it has the ability to target South Korea’s capital, Seoul, “with a massive artillery barrage, very early on.”

“It has various missile belts and artillery belts facing the DMZ that are able to target Seoul and these are very well protected,” he said.

He added that its Scud “knock-offs,” which are short-range tactical ballistic missiles, could target military facilities – including those operated by its arch-enemy the United States – anywhere in South Korea.

North Korea also has a well documented nuclear capability, though the extent of its arsenal and its technological sophistication has yet to be fully established.

Senior U.S. officials, including Adm. Bill Gortney, the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command, believe they have the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to fit on a missile and “shoot it at the (US) homeland.”

One thing that is clear, according to Hardy, is that North Korea has re-started its nuclear program.

“The five megawatt reactor at Yongbyong seems to be up and running again. There was steam coming off it, seems to be yes, that they are building up their stockpiles and our assessment is that it is up and running again and working,” he said. “That gives you a stockpile, but turning that stockpile into a weapon and a miniaturized weapon, that’s a whole different game.”

Protecting the regime

North Korea also has an air force equal in size to South Korea, as well as a navy with frigates and ship-sinking submarines that outnumbers its neighbor’s fleet.

Hardy describes North Korea’s aircraft as “obsolete” and its pilots generally “poor,” but he said they have been investing in their naval capabilities – for very good reason.

“They are trying to improve it and the reason for that is that they see the Northern Limit Line (a disputed maritime demarcation line between the neighbors) around that area as a good area for provocation, for pushing South Korea’s buttons and so that’s an area where they do see value in investment,” he said.

“Because what is the North Korean military for? Mainly to support the regime and to keep the regime where it needs to be. Everything else is focused on that.

“So whether that is provoking the South, or annoying the South but then offering concessions and then gaining food aid or relaxation of sanctions, whatever the particular rationale of that tactical action they are all designed to maintain the regime,” he added.

READ: North Korea prepares for massive parade