The other North Korean threat

The other North Korean threat, Washington ExaminerSean Durns, July 19, 2017

The Hermit Kingdom has been steadily expanding its special forces in recent years. The current estimate of 180,000 to 200,000 was noted in a 2010 South Korean defense white paper. That same report pointed out that just four years prior, the North likely had 120,000 SOF operators


North Korea’s successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4, 2017, has rightfully occasioned concern and condemnation by the United States and others. Ruled for more than seven decades by the dynastic dictatorship of the Kim family, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has, in recent years, made huge advances in nuclear weapons, missilery and cyber-warfare, with which it menaces the West and its allies.

Yet with tensions increasing on the Korean peninsula, policymakers should consider another threat emanating from Pyongyang: the regime’s well-trained and fanatical special operations forces (SOF).

As foreign affairs analyst Kyle Mizokami has noted, North Korea might have “the largest special-forces organization in the world,” with some estimates numbering 200,000 men and women, encompassing 25 brigades and five battalions.

A Pentagon report issued to Congress in 2016 called the DPRK’s special operations forces “among the most highly-trained, well equipped, best fed and highly motivated” in the North’s military. They give Pyongyang “significant capabilities for small-scale attacks that could rapidly escalate into a larger confrontation.”

Should war erupt on the peninsula, the U.S. Department of Defense states that it’s likely that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s military strategy will rely heavily on asymmetric warfare to offset the comparative technological advantages of the U.S., the Republic of Korea and others. Indeed, much of the regime’s aircraft and the equipment of conventional forces in the Korean People’s Army — including the North Korean People’s Navy — are deeply outdated.

To compensate, Pyongyang has invested in air defense, cyber capabilities and its SOF component. The last is dispersed across the country and includes commandos capable of reconnaissance and airborne and seaborne insertions.

If war occurs, these forces “would likely launch dozens of separate attacks throughout South Korea,” according to Mizokami. It’s probable that they would utilize suspected underground tunnels to attack vulnerable targets in the South.

Once engaged, Kim’s SOF have the ability to deploy chemical, radiological and biological weapons. DPRK operators are also reportedly highly trained in the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which plagued American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.

In the event of conflict, the North’s rough and unforgiving terrain would act as a force multiplier; it would be ideal for ambushes, direct action raids and guerilla warfare tactics. It’s likely that these units, including sniper teams, would be dressed in civilian garb or South Korean or U.S. military uniforms. Some, disguised as civilians, might use passenger flights to enter the South and wreak havoc.

North Korean officials exhorted that the recent ICBM launch was a “gift” for “American bastards.” The dictatorship has been equally clear about how it would employ its special forces.

On December 11, 2016, Kim’s government built a full-scale mock-up of the official residence of the South Korean president called the Blue House. North Korean SOF, as part of a drill that was broadcast on state-controlled media, fast-roped from helicopters and assaulted the residence, eventually setting it ablaze.

Some analysts speculated that the televised propaganda was meant to celebrate the impeachment of then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye the day before. This would be in keeping with the regime’s character and its hateful ideology. But it would be a mistake not to take the North’s fantasies seriously.

Pyongyang, in fact, has a history of using commandos against those it deems enemies of its Stalinist regime.

In 1968, 31 DPRK operators conducted a raid on the South Korean capital of Seoul. The men, belonging to a group known as Unit 124, infiltrated the country with plans to storm the Blue House and assassinate then-South Korean President Park Chung-hee. The team managed to make it within yards of the residence before being discovered. The ensuing gunfight and subsequent manhunt resulted in 59 deaths, including four American soldiers. All but two of the North Koreans were killed — at least one via suicide with a hand grenade.

More recently, in 1996, a DPRK submarine loaded with a Special Forces reconnaissance team ran aground off the South Korean coast. Four South Korean civilians and eight soldiers, along with nearly all of the North Korean forces, were killed. Two years ago, tensions between North and South were raised when two land mines—likely planted by Kim’s SOF—went off in the demilitarized zone separating the two countries, wounding two ROK troops.

The Hermit Kingdom has been steadily expanding its special forces in recent years. The current estimate of 180,000 to 200,000 was noted in a 2010 South Korean defense white paper. That same report pointed out that just four years prior, the North likely had 120,000 SOF operators.

As the U.S. and its allies consider how to confront the North Korean menace, the Kim regime’s ability to employ fanatical and highly trained special forces in numbers comparable to the entire U.S. Marine Corps must be taken into careful consideration. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.


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