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The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a key political actor in the Chinese state. Together with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese state institutions, it makes up the political foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the early years after the founding of the PRC in 1949, the military played an important role in state consolidation and the management of domestic state affairs, as is expected in a state founded on Leninist principles of organization. Since the reform process, which was initiated in the late 1970s, the political role of the PLA has changed considerably. It has become less involved in domestic politics and increased attention has been directed toward military modernization. Consequently, in the early 21st century, the Chinese military shares many characteristics with the armed forces in noncommunist states. At the same time, the organizational structures, such as the party committee system, the system of political leaders, and political organs, have remained in place. In other words, the politicized structures that were put in place to facilitate the role of the military as a domestic political tool of the CCP, across many sectors of society, are expected to also accommodate modernization, professionalization, and cooperation with foreign militaries on the international arena in postreform China. This points to an interesting discrepancy between form and purpose of the PLA. The role of the military in Chinese politics has thus shifted over the years, and its relationship with the CCP has generally been interpreted as having developed from one marked by symbiosis to one of greater institutional autonomy and independence. Yet these developments should not necessarily be seen as linear or irreversible. Indeed, China of the Xi Jinping era has shown an increased focus on ideology, centralization, and personalized leadership, which already has had consequences for the political control of the Chinese armed forces. Chances are that these trends will affect the role of the PLA in politics even further in the early decades of the 21st century.

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The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has long remained a hermit socialist nation. The North Korean leaders have endeavored to build a strong military with a large manpower and nuclear weapons capabilities even though some of its military gear is outmoded. The dictatorship in Pyongyang has used the ever-present threats from external hostile forces as well as potential domestic enemies as a rationale for beefing up its armed forces. The origin of the North Korean military dates back to Kim Il-sung’s anti-Japanese armed struggle in the 1930s. Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, his successors, have continued to improve the country’s nuclear and missile programs with vigor, even at the expense of a failing economy. Kim Jong-un has been bargaining with the United States over the scaling down of his nuclear and missile programs while hinting at major economic reform and opening up projects to revive the economy. Whether Pyongyang is genuine about denuclearization in exchange for international economic support and security guarantees remains unclear. North Korea has a highly militarized regime and, thus, some have referred to it as a garrison state or a fortress state. Its posture to the outside world is oftentimes militant and abrasive. The regime in Pyongyang invaded its southern neighbor in a fratricidal war in the early 1950s. The history of inter-Korean relations since then has been marred by repetitive currents of feuds and crises, many of which have been inflamed by the North. The North Korean military holds a firm place in society. Over its history, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, along with the Korean Workers’ Party, has maintained tight control over the military. The leader’s firm control of the armed forces is likely to persist for the time being.