How Big Is North Korean Army? Evidence From Missing Population – Analysis


By Ho Il Moon

Little is known about North Korea’s economy as official statistics are scant. But North Korea cannot be ignored, especially when it comes to the size of its army. This column suggests that the true number is hidden between the lines of the census. It provides an estimate based on missing population, that is, the difference between the whole population and the number of registered citizens.

“Partly as a result of the lack of information resources, the North Korean economy is a field that has been more or less forgotten by researchers” concludes a new report by the Society of Korean Historical Studies (Choson-shi Kenkyu Kai 2011). Yet, from a security perspective, from the perspective of historical accounts, and from the perspective of an eventual normalisation of relations, North Korea cannot be ignored. Thus, there is a need to gain an understanding of this country.

It is against this background that I present in this column figures on the number of North Korean military personnel and figures on the number of famine victims, two examples taken from my forthcoming book (Moon 2008).

How big is the North Korean army?

Since the country established its armed forces in 1963, North Korea has never published any number on military personnel. One estimate from The Military Balance is formally used by the Japanese government. It suggests North Korea’s military personnel are around 1,020,000 in the ground forces, 60,000 in the navy, and 11,000 in the air force. However, no clear explanation is provided as to how these figures were obtained.

But North Korea may have accidentally published its number of military personnel. It implemented two population censuses – one in 1993 and one in 2008. As the censuses were supported by the UN Population Fund and South Korea’s Foundation for Inter-Korean Cooperation, North Korea was obliged to report the data.

A close examination of the numbers reveals an anomaly. The population overall is greater than the sum of the populations by administrative district. The discrepancy in the 1993 census is of 691,027 persons, while in the 2008 census, it is of 702,373 persons. This means that roughly 700,000 people are not registered in administrative districts.

Figure 1. North Korea Sex ratio by age (1993 census)
Figure 1. North Korea Sex ratio by age (1993 census)

The reason for this discrepancy lies in North Korea’s citizen registration system. According to the Citizen Registration Law, not all citizens are registered. Article 13 stipulates that the citizen ID, ie the citizen registration, is to be returned to the public security office where the citizen resides if she enlists in the Korean People’s Army or Korean People’s Guard, or a public- or national-security institution, or if her citizenship ceases because of death or mental illness. This implies that the 700,000 discrepancy consists in part of those enlisted in the army.

Looking at the demographic characteristics of these 700,000 persons, it is highly likely that a majority of them are in the Korean People’s Army. Figure 1 shows the sex ratio by age taken from the 1993 data by administrative region. At the time of birth, there are slightly more boys than girls (the ratio is around 1.05). Because men have a higher mortality than women the older they get, the ratio declines from around age 30. However, as can be clearly seen in the figure, there is a sharp dent between ages 16 and 26. This coincides exactly with the end of compulsory-education, when some join the armed forces, and is entirely due to a decline in the number of men, which make up the numerator of the ratio. As the majority of the armed forces are young men, it is likely that most of the unregistered 700,000 persons are members of the armed forces.

At best, this number of 700,000 persons forms the upper bound for estimates of the number of North Korean military personnel. And this, in turn, implies that the figure presented in The Military Balance is an overestimate.

How many famine victims were there?

Another area in which available data are extremely scant is the number of victims of famine. Numbers circulated indicating that “several million people” had died from starvation. Although there were numerous sources for such claims, the first to provide a statistical underpinning is South Korea’s Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement. The latter repeatedly interviewed food refugees in China’s border regions and tried to estimate the scale of the famine. These estimates suggest that in the roughly three years from the floods in 1995 until late 1997, about 3.5 million people had died from starvation (KBSM 1998). But these estimates are extrapolations reconstructed from demographic information given by refugees from the region with the highest mortality rate and the most prone to famine. Hence, these numbers are unconvincing.

Taking a very different approach, I estimate the number of famine-related deaths based on ‘excess mortality,’ ie the difference between the mortality rate at normal times and that at the time of the famine. My estimates, which have been published by South Korea’s government, suggest that 336,000 persons died of famine from 1995 to 2000.


When seeking to investigate issues related to North Korea, one has little choice but to rely on officially published materials which may reflect history as written by the rulers. Yet, as Wrigley (1969), an authority in the field of historical demography, observed: “Historical demography deals with all men and women, not simply those who were powerful, well-born, wealthy or literate. By analysing parish registers, listings of inhabitants, returns made to census authorities and the like, we can look into the lives of ordinary people in the past, comparing peasant with gentleman, miner with clothmaker, countryman with city dweller, and so on. Where the necessary records are preserved there is a chance to get down the roots of society.”

My research thus hopefully provides a look at North Korea from the side of the ruled.

Ho Il Moon,
Associate Professor, Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi University


Choson-shi Kenkyu Kai (ed.) (2011), An Introduction to Research on Korean History, University of Nagoya Press, Nagoya (in Japanese).

Moon, Ho Il (2008) Demographic Trends in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Changes in Demographic Trends and Their Reasons, PhD dissertation, Hitotsubashi University. Soon to be published in Japanesed by Akashi Shoten.

Wrigley, Edward A. (1969) Population and History, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

KBSM (1998), “Report based on interviews with 1,694 North Korean food refugees,” December 1998 (in Korean) was a policy portal set up by the Centre for Economic Policy Research ( in conjunction with a consortium of national sites. Vox aims to promote research-based policy analysis and commentary by leading scholars. New content can be found at

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