A photo that makes North Korea look a lot less scary

March 25, 2013

Kim Jong Un inspects "new" military technology made by unit 1501 of the Korean People's Army. (REUTERS/KCNA)

North Korea loves to threaten to start World War III. In the last week alone, it has warned Japan that it might launch a preemptive nuclear strike against it and released a video detailing its plan for a three-day invasion of South Korea.

The threats – turning Seoul into a sea of flames, eradicating the American military presence and maybe America itself – are empty, of course. And not just because North Korea doesn't actually have any incentive to start a second Korean War (it has every incentive to make empty threats). They're also empty because the North Korean military is just not that powerful anymore.

The photo at the top of this page helps to make my point, but first a bit of background.

It is true that the North Korean military is very big, one of the world's largest standing armies: 1.1 million troops! 4,200 tanks! 820 fighter jets! It's also, by virtue of Pyongyang's "military first" policies, perhaps the most privileged and best funded arm of the state, maybe outside of Kim Jong Un's personal piggy banks.

Even the military's size and political backing, though, can't make up for North Korea's isolation and impoverishment. Most of those fighter jets, for example, will never take off because the regime can't afford enough fuel to fill them up. Even if they could somehow procure enough jet fuel, the fighters "would have been shot out of the sky in the first few hours of a conflict," Dartmouth professor and North Korea-watcher Jennifer Lind told NPR recently. The tanks, likewise, are old and inferior.

North Korean propaganda frequently tries to make the case that, not only is their national army fearless and enormous, but it's also breathtakingly advanced. This propaganda is for domestic consumption, of course, but seeing it from the outside is a nice reminder of the wide technological gap between North Korea and its neighbors South Korea and Japan, not to mention the United States.

Take the above photo, just released by North Korean state media from leader Kim Jong Un's big trip to visit Unit 1501 of the Korean People's Army, which is reportedly developing new and exciting military technology.

Now, it's possible that this computer – encased in a giant metal box, looking very retro – does something amazing. But note some of the environmental details: the dining room chair, the consumer desktop keyboard and Logitech mouse. None of those really scream "advanced military computing technology" so much as they suggest "we should put an old Dell in this metal box to show to Dear Leader."

If you've been spending a lot of time reading about North Korea's recent flurry of threats and provocations, apparently edging right up to the line of starting a war, perhaps it will ease your mind a bit to glimpse the technology and leadership behind its million-man army.

The Wall Street Journal's Tom Gara tweeted, "North Korea appears to have crossed a dangerous threshold and developed a fully-functioning calculator."

The ever-obsessive blog North Korea Leadership Watch of course has notes on the trip.  Apparently, this military unit also manufactures playground equipment, such as plastic slides.

They also allegedly made this bit of equipment, in the photo below, which looks like it might be some sort of range-finder or infrared sensor, perhaps of the kind meant to use with guided munitions. It's difficult to tell what it's resting on top of: a vehicle of some kind? The hatch suggests it's maybe an armored personnel carrier, although that armor looks awfully thin. It could also possibly be a submarine, given that other photos appear to show a long series of top-side hatches that might be launch tubes.


(REUTERS/KCNA)

Of course, the point of this photo is less about the maybe-infrared viewfinder and more about having Kim Jong Un leaning jauntily against it, alongside some poor general who looks like he doesn't really understand what pose he's supposed to take. But that's North Korea for you: irreverence in the service of militarism, itself in the service of dictatorship.

More on North Korea:

Obama’s six options for dealing with North Korea (they’re all terrible)

The Cannibals of North Korea

Why American video games show up in North Korean propaganda

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Max Fisher · March 25, 2013