North Korea’s Special Forces Expansion

Today we are featuring an article on the evolution of North Korean military strategy. I found the information on the training the commandos go through to be of particular interest:

North Korea Swiftly Expanding Its Special Forces
Commandos Trained in Terror Tactics In Effort to Maintain Military Threat

SEOUL — North Korea has massively increased its special operations forces, schooled them in the use of Iraqi-style roadside bombs and equipped them to sneak past the heavily fortified border that divides the two Koreas.

By expanding what was already the world’s largest special operations force, the North appears to be adding commando teeth to what, in essence, is a defensive military strategy. The cash-strapped government of Kim Jong Il, which struggles to maintain and buy fuel for its aging tanks and armor, has concluded it cannot win a conventional war, according to U.S. and South Korean military officials.

But by combining huge numbers of special forces with artillery that can devastate Seoul and missiles that can pound all of South Korea, North Korea has found an affordable way to remain terrifying, ensure regime survival and deter a preemptive strike on the nuclear bombs that make it a player on the world stage, say U.S. and South Korean military analysts.

“The North Koreans have done what they had to do to make sure their military is still a credible threat,” said Bruce E. Bechtol Jr., a North Korea specialist who is a professor at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico. “They can still inflict tens of thousands of civilian casualties in Seoul on the first day of combat.”

The havoc-raising potential of North Korea’s special forces has grown as their numbers have increased and their training has shifted to terrorist tactics developed by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. forces in Korea.

“The capability is really very large, and they will use these tactics,” Sharp told reporters recently in Washington.

In a conflict, tens of thousands of special forces members would try to infiltrate South Korea: by air in radar-evading biplanes, by ground through secret tunnels beneath the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and by sea aboard midget submarines and hovercraft, according to South Korean and U.S. military analysts.

Disguised in the uniforms of South Korean police and military personnel, special forces are also expected to try to walk into Seoul. Dressed as civilians, they may also arrive aboard passenger flights from Beijing and other foreign capitals.

“These are not your standard North Korean guys,” Bechtol said. “They are the best-trained, best-fed and most indoctrinated soldiers in the North. They know how to fight, and if they are caught, they are trained to kill themselves.”

Their primary mission, in the event of war, is to leapfrog the DMZ and create chaos among the 20.5 million residents of greater Seoul, while harassing South Korean and U.S. forces in rear areas, military and intelligence experts said.

It has been 41 years since North Korea mounted a commando raid inside South Korea, but the South has been forced to respond to an old threat turned new.

South Korea’s army is trying to improve the mobility of its trench-bound frontline infantry and has canceled plans to reduce some reserve units. It has reversed the long-planned removal of a special warfare command from southern Seoul and has begun moves to buy advanced transport planes to deliver its special forces inside North Korea.

The navy has been ordered to change its focus from patrolling the sea to defending the shoreline from commando attacks, according to Kim Jong-dae, who edits a military magazine in Seoul and who until 2007 was a policy adviser to the defense minister. The South Korean government declined to comment on the navy’s orders.

South Korea and the United States agree that the number of North Korean special forces is rising, but they disagree on how much.

The number is now 180,000, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry. That’s a 50 percent increase since the South’s last official count three years ago. But Sharp, the U.S. commander here, puts the number at 80,000 (although that still dwarfs the special forces of any country, including the United States, which has about 51,000.)

Much of the difference appears to be a dispute over the definition of special forces. North Korea has retrained and reconfigured about 60,000 infantry troops as special forces in the past three years, South Korea says. The United States agrees that this reconfiguring has occurred, but it “does not count [retrained infantry] as special forces,” according to Maj. Todd Fleming, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Korea.

Whatever the number, there is widespread agreement that the North’s special forces are increasingly formidable. Sharp describes them as “tough, well-trained and profoundly loyal,” while being capable of illicit activities, strategic reconnaissance and attacks against civilian infrastructure and military targets across Northeast Asia.

Their low-tech, low-cost training includes throwing knives, firing poisonous darts and running up steep hills wearing backpacks filled with 60 pounds of rocks and sand, said Ha Tae-jun, a former South Korean commando who has debriefed captured members of the North’s special forces. They are also drilled in street warfare, chemical attacks, night fighting, martial arts, car theft and using spoons and forks as weapons, say South Korean government reports and military experts.

South Korean and U.S. forces in Korea have begun counterinsurgency training in the past year to respond to what are thought to be new tactics — including the use of improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs — that North Korean special forces have adopted from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Staff officers from the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., have come to Korea to help prepare soldiers for the new threat.

In decades past, North Korean special forces have demonstrated remarkable fighting ability and grit when cornered inside South Korea. In 1968, a 31-member team attacked Blue House, the presidential residence in Seoul. Although they failed to assassinate President Park Chung-hee, they killed 68 South Koreans over the nine days it took to track them down. Several commandos committed suicide to avoid capture, one was unaccounted for and one was taken alive.

North Korea has repeatedly threatened to turn Seoul (located just 35 miles from the border) into “a sea of fire.” To make that possible, it has moved about 70 percent of its military units and up to 80 percent of its total firepower to within 60 miles of the DMZ, according to the Strategic Studies Institute, a research arm of the U.S. Army War College.

But the capacity of North Korea to protect and maintain that frontline armor has declined since the 1990s. Flight hours for the North’s military aircraft have plummeted for lack of fuel, as has training of mechanized ground forces.

North Korea has also begun to question the utility of the tanks and armor it can afford at the front, after seeing the ease with which U.S. precision weapons shredded Saddam Hussein’s armored forces in Iraq, according to a South Korean Defense Ministry report.

“They were really shocked watching how the Americans destroyed Iraq’s tanks,” said Kim, the military affairs editor.

What North Korea still has in extraordinary abundance are boots on the ground, thanks to universal conscription and a mandatory 10 years of military service for men, seven years for women.

“The North Koreans made a decision based on the resources they have,” said Kwon Young-hae, a former director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. “The best way for them to counterbalance the South’s technological advantage is with special forces. When Kim Jong Il gives pep talks to these troops, he says, ‘You are individually, one by one, like nuclear weapons.’ “

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