Tactical Ships

North Korea has the world’s largest navy – but it’s still a joke

north korea navy ship

A 1993 aerial port side view of a North Korean Navy Najin class frigate underway.

North Korea’s navy, officially called the Korean People’s Navy, has a strength estimated to be between 700 ships at the low end to more than 900 by higher estimation. It is also believed to have more than 60,000 active duty sailors in its service. These numbers sound big, really big, especially when compared to the U.S. Navy, which has just shy of 350,000 personnel and 290 combat vessels.

If naval warfare was a numbers game, then North Korea’s navy might be a little more intimidating. The truth is that much of the Korean People’s Navy is undertrained inept, or (like most things in North Korea) obsolete. 

It goes without saying that a strong naval presence, even with today’s ICBM and aerial refueling capabilities, is still the best way for countries to project power, either regionally or globally. The United States is a global superpower because of its 11 aircraft carriers and massive tonnage of ships able to deploy in blue water combat, not because it has a massive number of men and ships. North Korea has none of that capability, despite its massive numbers of both.

The biggest threat from the KPN is its submarine force, which is known for aggression and numbers. Yet much of the North Korean navy is made up of old Soviet and Chinese-built craft made in the 1950s and 1960s. Its most recent ships are Song-O-class submarines, introduced to the KPN in 1991, and primarily used for spy operations and special forces insertions behind the demilitarized zone. 

The bulk of the North Korean navy is a 500-strong force of landing craft, 70+ submarines, and hundreds of torpedo boats and patrol boats. Many are believed to be in poor condition, despite being easier and cheaper to maintain than larger surface ships like its handful of corvettes or frigates.

north korea navy submarine
North Korean Sang-O submarine that ran aground in South Korean waters near Gangneung, in 1996.

The history of the KPN is just as bad. With the exception of its capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968, the KPN has lost or was forced to withdraw from every battle or conflict in which it ever participated, including actions during the 1950-53 Korean War. This doesn’t mean the repressive country’s naval force is harmless, however. There have been multiple occasions where North Korean actions at sea have caused deaths and casualties, either to foreign ships or to themselves. 

In 2013 and 2016, North Korean submarines and submarine chasers were mysteriously lost at sea, even while being monitored by the U.S. Navy. There have been countless at sea skirmishes between the South and North Korean navies during and after the Cold War. Japan’s Coast Guard sank an armed North Korean spy ship in 2001. In 2010, an unknown submarine believed to be North Korean, sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan, sparking international outrage. North Korea denied involvement. 

To make matters worse, its leadership is as bad as any other in the North Korean military. The KPN commander is Adm. Ri Yong-Ju. Not much is known about Adm. Ri, except that he’s a member of the Korean Worker’s Party and was born during the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II, which would place his age in the 80s, making him too young to have any experience fighting a real war.

The biggest flaw in North Korean naval doctrine (which is a long list) is that North Korea is on a peninsula, flanked by two seas, which requires two naval forces. It’s believed that none of the ships in the North Korean navy are capable of making the trip around the peninsula to join or support the fleet on the other side of the peninsula, meaning once a ship deploys to either sea, it’s there forever.