Key Point: Pyongyang doesn't have a good military, but it does have nuclear weapons. It also has a lot of aysmmetric forces to threaten its enemies.
One of the most vital parts of North Korea’s war machine is one that relies the most on so-called “soldier power” skills. North Korea has likely the largest special-forces organization in the world, numbering two hundred thousand men—and women—trained in unconventional warfare. Pyongyang’s commandos are trained to operate throughout the Korean Peninsula, and possibly beyond, to present an asymmetric threat to its enemies.
For decades North Korea maintained an impressive all-arms force of everything from tanks to mechanized infantry, artillery, airborne forces and special forces. The country’s conventional forces, facing a long slide after the end of the Cold War, have faced equipment obsolescence and supply shortages—for example, North Korea has very few tanks based on the 1970s Soviet T-72, and most are still derivatives of the 1960s-era T-62. The rest of Pyongyang’s armored corps are in a similar predicament, making them decidedly inferior to U.S. and South Korean forces.
In response, North Korea has upped the importance of its special forces. The country maintains twenty-five special-forces and special-purpose brigades, and five special-forces battalions, designed to undertake missions from frontline DMZ assault to parachute and assassination missions. The Light Infantry Training Guidance Bureau, part of the Korean People’s Army, functions as a kind of analog to U.S. Special Operations Command, coordinating the special forces of the Army, Army Air Force and Korean People’s Navy.
Of North Korea’s two hundred thousand “commandos,” approximately 150,000 belong to light infantry units. Foot mobile, their frontline mission is to infiltrate or flank enemy lines to envelop or mount rear attacks on enemy forces. North Korea’s hilly terrain lends itself to such tactics, as does the network of tunnels that the country has dug that cross the DMZ in a number of places. Eleven of North Korea’s special forces brigades are light-infantry brigades, and there are smaller light-infantry units embedded within individual NK combat divisions.
A further three brigades are special purpose airborne infantry. The Thirty-Eighth, Forty-Eighth and Fifty-Eighth Airborne Brigades operate much like the Eighty-Second Airborne Division, conducting strategic operations including airborne drops to seize critical terrain and infrastructure. NKPA airborne forces would likely target enemy airfields, South Korean government buildings, and key roads and highways to prevent their sabotage. Each brigade is organized into six airborne infantry battalions with a total strength of 3,500. Unlike the Eighty-Second, however, NKPA airborne brigades are unlikely to operate at the battalion level or higher, and due to a lack of long-range transport cannot operate beyond the Korean Peninsula.
In addition, North Korea has an estimated eight “sniper brigades,” three for the People’s Army (Seventeenth, Sixtieth and Sixty-First Brigades), three for the Army Air Force (Eleventh, Sixteenth and Twenty-First Brigades), and two for the People’s Navy (Twenty-Ninth, 291st). Each consists of approximately 3,500 men, organized into seven to ten sniper “battalions.” These units fulfill a broad variety of roles and are roughly analogous to U.S. Army Rangers, U.S. Special Forces and Navy SEALs. Unlike their American counterparts, it appears some these units are capable of fighting as conventional airborne, air assault, or naval infantry.
Sniper brigades are trained in strategic reconnaissance and so-called “direct action” missions including assassination missions, raids against high-level targets military and economic targets, sabotage, disruption of South Korea’s reserve system, covert delivery of weapons of mass disruption (including possibly radiological weapons), and organizing antigovernment guerrilla campaigns in South Korea. They will frequently be dressed in civilian, South Korean military, or U.S. military uniforms. One platoon of thirty to forty troops per Army sniper brigade consists solely of women, trained to conduct combat operations dressed as civilians.
Finally, the Reconnaissance Bureau maintains four separate reconnaissance battalions. Highly trained and organized, these five-hundred-man battalions are trained to lead an an army corps through the hazardous DMZ. They likely have intimate—and highly classified—knowledge of both friendly and enemy defenses in the demilitarized zone. A fifth battalion is reportedly organized for out-of-country operations.
Special forces are generally meant to operate behind enemy lines, and North Korea employs considerable, though often obsolete, means of getting them there. For ground forces, one obvious means of infiltrating South Korea is through the 160-mile-long and 2.5-mile-wide DMZ. Undiscovered cross-border tunnels are another means. By sea, Pyongyang has the ability to deliver an estimated five thousand troops in a single lift, using everything from commercial vessels to Nampo-class landing craft, its fleet of 130 Kongbang-class hovercraft and Sang-O coastal submarines and Yeono midget submarines.
By air, North Korea has a notional fleet of two hundred elderly An-2 Colt short-takeoff and -landing transports. Capable of flying low and slow to avoid radar, each An-2 can carry up to twelve commandos, landing on unimproved surfaces or parachuting them on their targets. The regime also has a fleet of about 250 transport helicopters, mostly Soviet-bloc in origin (and age) but also including illicitly acquired Hughes 500MD series helicopters similar to those flown by the Republic of Korea. Pyongyang also appears bent to acquire modern, long-distance transports such as this aircraft, manufactured in New Zealand. Aircraft such as the P-750 XSTOL would allow North Korean special forces to reach as far as Japan and Okinawa, both of which would serve as forward bases for U.S. forces in wartime.
In the event of war, North Korea would likely launch dozens of separate attacks throughout South Korea, from the DMZ to the southern port of Busan. Whether or not these forces can make their way through Seoul’s considerable air and sea defenses is another question. Valleys, passes and waterways that could be used by low-flying aircraft and watercraft are already covered with everything from air-defense guns to antitank guided missiles. Given proper warning, South Korean defenders would inflict heavy losses on North Korean commandos on the way to their objectives.
North Korean special forces have evolved from a nuisance force designed to stage attacks in the enemy’s rear into something far more dangerous. Their ability to distribute nuclear, chemical, biological, or radiological weapons could, if successful, kill thousands of civilians. They have even trained to attack and destroy a replica of the Blue House, the official resident of the South Korean president. Although many would undoubtedly die en route to their destination, once on the ground their training, toughness and political indoctrination make them formidable adversaries.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
This first appeared in 2017 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
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