Newsnight has spoken to two North Korean defectors about life inside the secretive Stalinist state, one of whom says that he was an anti-tank battalion commander in North Korea's army before fleeing.
Last month, UN Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn issued a scathing report on human rights violations in North Korea, calling the situation there "abysmal".
Most of the weapons are outdated and so to make up for that weakness, the North concentrates on missiles and nuclear arms development
Unsurprisingly, voices from inside the country are rare - dissenting voices rarer still - but the BBC's Newsnight programme has spoken to two defectors who paint a grim picture of life inside North Korea.
One of them is Joo-il Kim, who says he was an anti-tank battalion commander in North Korea's army for seven years until he fled the country in 2005.
The North has a vast conventional military, which correspondents say is the glue that holds the country together, but it is undermined by ageing conventional weaponry.
According to Mr Kim, Pyongyang's lack of access to enough new conventional weaponry is what drives its controversial nuclear programme.
North Korea said in April it had extracted weapons-grade plutonium
"Conventional weapon-wise, North Korea is better equipped than South Korea," he told Newsnight reporter Mark Seddon.
"But most of the weapons are outdated and so, to make up for that weakness, the North concentrates on missiles and nuclear arms development."
North Korea is believed to have more than 800 ballistic missiles, including long-range missiles.
In recent months it has a launched a series of missiles and conducted an underground nuclear test - increasing international tensions and drawing UN sanctions in response.
And this month the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that North Korea had completed the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods to extract weapons-grade plutonium.
But although Mr Kim says the military is hampered by its increasingly archaic conventional weapons, what Pyongyang can call upon is vast manpower.
In the past, I wouldn't say exactly military coups - but there have been similar incidents that have happened before, which have failed
"Officially the North Korea armed forces number 1.2 million - these are the official numbers," Mr Kim said. "But they do not include the secret military service, so I do not know the exact figure of military personnel.
"About 100,000 people are conscripted annually and they serve for 10 years," he added.
But Mr Kim says that the severe famine of the 1990s, in which huge numbers of people died, and the Asian economic crisis in the same decade have taken their toll on the military.
"Previously discipline in the military was strong, but after the economic crisis in North Korea they could not control the armed forces," he said.
"Because the economy was very bad many soldiers deserted. And the famine was also a problem, so discipline in the military has weakened."
Economic problems and food shortages continue to beset North Koreans.
When Mr Muntarbhorn attacked North Korea over its human rights record, he also accused the authorities in Pyongyang of allowing up to a third of its 24 million people to go hungry.
Mr Kim says recent crises have damaged army discipline
North Korea's most important international relationship remains with China.
The Chinese are the North's biggest trading partner and over the years have helped sustain Kim Jong-il's regime - fending off the most stringent of international sanctions.
But since Pyongyang's first test of a nuclear device in 2006, there has been a reassessment of relations by Beijing.
Some experts have even speculated about the possibility of a Chinese sponsored coup d'etat should conditions catastrophically deteriorate.
When asked for his view on such speculation, Mr Kim said that he thought it unlikely, but he did suggest that there have been internal uprisings in North Korea.
"I am not an expert in that area - but from the experience of living in North Korea the chances of a military coup with the backing of China or any other forces is very small.
"In the past, I wouldn't say exactly military coups - but there have been similar incidents that have happened before, which have failed."
Due to restrictions on travel and reporting in North Korea, Newsnight has not been able to independently verify Joo-il Kim's story, but he comes from a reputable source. When asked to comment on Newsnight's report an official in North Korea's London embassy dismissed the claims and said that "the defectors are most probably convicted criminals who have fled the DPRK in order to escape further punishment".
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