North Korea’s state newspaper reported Thursday that 4.7 million students and workers have expressed a desire to enlist or reenlist in the nation’s army, potentially adding a major boost in manpower to what is already one of the largest armed forces in the world.
It is difficult for outside analysts to gauge the accuracy of the report in the Rodong Sinmum newspaper. North Korean state media has issued similar claims during past moments of tension. Earlier this summer, for example, it claimed that 3.5 million citizens had signed up for the army after the United Nations imposed new sanctions on Pyongyang.
Most estimates suggest that North Korea has an unusually large number of armed forces personnel for its population of 25 million. The U.S. State Department has estimated that North Korea had more than 1.18 million armed forces personnel in 2014, making it the fourth-largest army in the world after China (2.37 million), India (1.41 million) and the United States (1.43 million).
For comparison, Iraq’s military in 2003 was estimated to be have 445,000 men for a population of around 26 million people.
This massive standing army comes by design: North Korea’s constitution explicitly states that “national defense is the supreme duty and honor of its citizens” and that citizens are required to serve in the armed forces by law. A 2015 congressional report from the Defense Department estimated that four percent to five percent of North Korea’s citizens were on active military duty with the Korean People’s Army (KPA), while another 25 percent to 30 percent were assigned to a reserve or paramilitary unit and would be subject to wartime mobilization.
The effectiveness of such a force is not totally clear. Accounts from American soldiers who fought in the Korean War almost seven decades ago suggest that the North’s solders were unusually good at evasion and determined to win. However, the Pentagon report states that the KPA primarily fields aging equipment based on technology as old as the 1950s, often produced or based on designs from the Soviet Union or China.