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By Michael McKinney May 10, 2013

Sen. Jack Reed says that, per capita, North Korea has one of world’s largest standing armies

In recent weeks, the North Korean government has made numerous increasingly provocative statements threatening South Korea and the United States, at one point warning South Korea that "our retaliatory action will start without any notice from now."

As the rhetoric was escalating, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, spoke of North Korea’s military capabilities during an appearance on WJAR Channel 10’s "10 News Conference."

Reed was asked about North Korea’s recent moves and generally about what threat it could pose to the United States.

Reed said that there is concern that, in five or more years, North Korea could increase its capability to launch nuclear missiles that travel longer ranges.

"They have a substantial standing army, one of the largest, certainly the largest per capita, in the world," he said of their conventional, non-nuclear, military.

We wanted to know whether North Korea -- officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea -- really has such a large force, based on the best-known information. The caveat of best-known is underscored by a recent  New York Times news analysis, which reported on the difficulties the United States faces getting accurate intelligence about the country and raised questions about the accuracy of information about things such as nuclear weapons.

We contacted Chip Unruh, Reed’s spokesman, who e-mailed links to several documents.

One is a U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress on North Korea that says that country’s total military -- army, air and naval capabilities -- "ranks in personnel numbers as the fourth largest military in the world."

It fields "primarily legacy equipment," the report states, meaning hardware "based on designs of the Soviet Union and China, dating back to the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, though a few systems are based on modern technology."

According to the Department of Defense report, at about 950,000, "the ground forces comprise the vast majority of North Korea’s military." The report estimates that country has some 60,000 naval personnel and 92,000 air force personnel -- a total of about 1.1 million.

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Several other sources provided by Unruh, including a March 28, 2012, statement before the House Armed Services Committee by Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of the United States-South Korea combined forces, supported the statement that North Korea has the fourth largest military in terms of sheer manpower, behind China, the United States and India.

The 2012 U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs fact sheet said the estimated active-duty military force in North Korea is as many as 1.2 million personnel.

Unruh also supplied a link to a short 2011 article and graphic in The Economist magazine. Using data from 161 countries for which such information was available, according to the magazine, the graphic said China had the largest active military in number of personnel  -- more than 2.25 million -- while the United States was second with upward of 1.5 million active-duty personnel.  India was third in manpower.

The Economist placed North Korea fourth in overall personnel at about 1.2 million, but the Economist also noted that, if looked at per population, North Korea was, by far, the "most heavily militarized of all," saying there were 49 military personnel for every 1,000 North Koreans -- a ratio greater than that of any other nation.

China has a population estimated at 1.3 billion people, with 1.7 military personnel for  every 1,000 Chinese, and the United States has a population estimated at more than 316 million, with 5.5 military personnel per 1,000.

We checked the CIA’s latest estimate, for July 2013, which put North Korea’s population at about 24.7 million people.

Finally, we contacted the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which issues an annual report "The Military Balance" on nations’ military capabilities. Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the institute’s nonproliferation and disarmament program, e-mailed that Reed’s statement "sounds correct to me" but suggested checking the militaries of some smaller nations such as Israel. The Economist reported that Israel had 23 military personnel per 1,000 population.

Of course, sheer manpower numbers aren’t necessarily a good measure of a nation’s military capability. And analysts often assert  that much of North Korea’s technology and hardware is outdated or obsolete. But that’s beyond the scope of our analysis.

Our ruling

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said, of North Korea: "They have a substantial standing army, one of the largest, certainly the largest per capita, in the world."

Numerous publicly available documents support his claim. We rate it True.

Our Sources

E-mails, Chip Unruh, spokesman, Rhode Island U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, April 26 and 29, May 3, 2013

E-mail, Mark Fitzpatrick, director, non-proliferation and disarmament programme, International Institute for Strategic Studies, May 9, 2013

Central Intelligence Agency, "The World Factbook," updated April 29, 2013, accessed on May 7, 2013

Article and graphic, The Economist, "Armied to the Hilt," online on July 19, 2011, accessed on May 7, 2013

Article, The New York Times, "Intelligence on North Korea, and Its New Leader, Remains Elusive," May 6, 2012, accessed on May 6, 2013

Article, Reuters news agency, "North Korea Issues New Military Threats on Founder’s Birthday," published online on April 15, 2013, accessed on May 8, 2013

Office of the Secretary of Defense, annual report to Congress in 2012 titled "Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea," accessed on May 5-7, 2013

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Sen. Jack Reed says that, per capita, North Korea has one of world’s largest standing armies

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