The North Korean People’s Army
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Armed Communist Party-controlled formations of Koreans began forming even before the outbreak of the Great Pacific War. Kim Il-Sung formed the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army in 1932, while Mu Chong and Kim Tu-bong formed the Korean Volunteer Army in 1939. Kim’s army waged guerilla war against the Japanese occupiers of Korea, while the Volunteer Army, drawing its manpower from Korean deserters from the Japanese forces, fought alongside the Chinese communist forces.
Beyond that, several thousand ethnic Koreans served in the Red Army, and tens of thousands more in the Chinese communist forces. These came mostly from the Korean communities that dotted the Soviet Maritime Province and eastern Siberia, and Manchuria, respectively. Other Korean volunteers slipped across the border from Japanese-ruled Korea to enlist with the Chinese communists.
That would give the new Korean People’s Army (usually called the North Korean People’s Army, or NKPA, outside North Korea) a formidable base of trained and experienced manpower. Following the Red Army’s August 1945 invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria and Korea, the Soviet 25th Army oversaw the occupation of Korea north of the 38th Parallel. Army commander Ivan Chistyakov selected Pyongyang as his headquarters, and installed Kim il-Sung – a Red Army major, hand-picked by Soviet spy chief Lavrentii Beria – as leader of a local provisional authority.
Under Chistyakov’s direction, the Soviets began to stand up Korean security forces in their sector of the peninsula. The Soviets provided about 3,000 Koreans who’d served in their 88th Rifle Brigade and other units, while the Chinese Communists released the Korean Volunteer Corps with several thousand more. In addition, thousands of Koreans who’d fought the Japanese in partisan bands also answered the call.
Soviet troops in Korea. October 1945.
Early on, a struggle for influence developed between those who’d served in the Soviet forces, either directly or as Soviet-sponsored partisans, and those who’d fought in the Chinese Communist People’s Liberation Army. This Ye’nan Faction, as they became known, wasn’t exactly loyal to Mao Zedong and their former commanders: they agitated for the unification of Gando, the southeastern third of Manchuria inhabited by many ethnic Koreans, with the rest of the peninsula. Kim il-Sung was willing to sign away these territories in the interest of harmony between the communist states, and that earned him Soviet backing.
The Korean Workers’ Party then helped oversee the Soviet-sponsored establishment of a Constabulary Force, to patrol the border with the American zone, and a Railway Guard force. The Soviets provided training and weapons, some of the latter from their own stocks, the rest from those captured from the Japanese at the end of the war. By the summer of 1946, these two forces had about 20,000 men. The Soviets helped establish specialist training schools and an officers’ academy in North Korea, and sent 10,000 specially-selected young conscripts for what would become three years of extensive aviation and armor training in the Soviet Far East.
The Security Training Command oversaw the program, and in May 1947 organized its troops into two infantry divisions and an independent brigade. The 25th Army provided small arms, mortars and artillery from its own stocks to bring the new units to full strength, and assisted in conducting large-unit training. The Korean units now numbered about 30,000 men, with slightly more than half of then new trainees. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea adopted its first constitution in February 1948, which included language establishing the Korean People’s Army as well as a navy and an air force.
Soviet forces began their withdrawal from North Korea in September 1948, when the Democratic People’s Republic was also formally declared. The NKPA now raised the 3rd Independent Brigade to division status and added a new 4th Independent Brigade. As they withdrew, the Soviet units left behind vast stocks of weapons, vehicles and ammunition; most notably, the 10th Tank Division (formerly the 10th Mechanized Corps) handed over most of its T34/85 medium tanks, which the North Koreans used to create the 105th Independent Tank Battalion, soon raised to a regiment.
An NKPA T34/85 rolls into Seoul, 29 June 1950.
In December 1948, the Soviet Defense Ministry laid out its plan for development of the NKPA; the Koreans do not appear to have had a say. The new-model army would have two armored divisions equipped with 500 medium tanks, six “assault” divisions, eight regular infantry divisions and eight more reserve divisions.
The Soviets pared that down the following spring and summer, when they agreed to Kim il-Sung’s plan to unite the entire peninsula by force. The NKPA would have just one armored division and ten infantry divisions. Estimates of North Korean tank strength in secondary sources usually appear to overlook the vehicles provided by 10th Tank Division; the NKPA would go to war in the summer of 1950 with a substantial tank park, enough for a full armored division plus detachments supporting its infantry divisions with seasoned crews trained in the Soviet Union. The tank regiment was raised to brigade status, but while it reached division strength it didn’t receive formal division status until after the war began. The NKPA also had enough tanks and crews, intended for the second armored division, to form an additional independent tank regiment.
The Soviets provided nearly all of the NKPA’s materiel; an ammunition plant established in Pyongyang worked three shifts to pump out small-arms rounds but North Korea had emerged from Japanese colonial rule with practically no heavy industry of its own. In addition to the stocks left by the 25th Army, additional shipments continued through 1949 and into 1950. Nearly everything came from the Soviet Union, from artillery and tanks on down to uniforms and rations.
Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War allowed Mao Zedong to release three divisions made up primarily of Korean troops to the NKPA. The 15th Independent Division became the North Korean 12th Division (later re-numbered as the 7th Division) while the 164 and 166th Infantry Divisions of the Northeast Volunteer Army became the North Korean 5th and 6th Divisions, respectively. All three divisions released their Chinese troops, bringing about 7,000 men apiece to the NKPA, which fleshed out their ranks with newly-training Korean conscripts. The Soviets provided a full suite of uniforms, weapons (including artillery) and vehicles for each of the new divisions on their arrival in Korea. The NKPA also raised its 4th Independent Infantry Brigade to division status using newly-trained conscripts.
Meanwhile, the Korean Workers’ Party had established three Youth League training centers, each aiming to create an infantry division, and these joined the establishment in the spring of 1950. In addition to the three complete divisions, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army also released roughly 11,000 individual Korean veterans who’d served in other units and now came home to provide a cadre of experienced senior soldiers and junior officers.
Beyond those forces, the NKPA also formed five security brigades, an independent special forces regiment and an independent motorcycle regiment. All of those units also received training from Soviet advisors, and full equipment with Soviet arms and vehicles.
Each NKPA regular infantry division included a battlion of Su76 assault guns.
By June 1950, the NKPA possessed a large, well-equipped force of 10 infantry divisions (three of these apparently intended for occupation duty once the South fell), one armored division and supporting units. About one-third of the rank and file were combat veterans of the Chinese Civil War or the Red Army’s Far Eastern campaign (or both). The remainder were well-trained under the eyes of Soviet instructors and Korean veterans. Soviet advisors pulled out of lower-level units in early 1950, leaving only the teams attached to division staffs, each commanded by a colonel. Soviet staff officers conducted higher-level planning for the upcoming war; many operational orders were issued in Russian and only translated at division headquarters.
All of that experience brought with it significant problems in factionalism: Supreme Leader Kim il-Sung favored men with Soviet experience over those who’d fought alongside the Chinese or in the independent partisan movement, and these generals in turn disliked Kim. Generals from these origins would bear the blame for the NKPA’s defeat in the autumn of 1950, and be purged in the late 1950’s.
Despite that, Kim il-Sung wielded a potent instrument of war, immeasurable superior to the Republic of Korea forces on the southern side of the 38th Parallel and perhaps better than what the United States could send to support them. North Korean plans – as written by their Soviet advisors – called for the entire strength of the NKPA (about 200,000 men, including the small air force and navy) to be flung against the South. The training centers had been emptied to fill out the last two divisions (the 13th and 15th); there would be no trained replacements waiting in case the swift campaign turned into a full-scale war. Kim il-Sung staked everything on the first roll of the dice.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects; some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He misses his dog, Leopold.
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