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  • Darren Lindeman

North Korean special purpose forces, a review of current considerations. 2019

Updated: Jul 10, 2019






North Korea has probably the largest number of special forces personnel in the word as of 2019. According to the WashingtonPost "a 2015 defense department report to congress suggests there are a at least 180,000 commandos". Because North Korea is often regarded as a general intelligence 'black hole’or ‘vault’, the true extent of the size and objectives of North Korea’s special forces corps is not well known and so is the policies of South Korea to counter act their threats. First hand and reliable information regarding North Korea's military forces are usually classified, due to the ongoing status of war in the Korean peninsula. In view of the of the overall military and operation strategy that North Korea would conduct in an upcoming war, a South Korea's defense white paper in 2016, outlines that The North would likely utilize "guerrilla and hybrid warfare and also Blitzkrieg" tactics. Given that SPF are an elite force within North Korea, it is likely they would play a major role in any upcoming conflict.


In the 21st century the technology divide in the Korean Peninsula cannot be stronger. The North Korea state not only faces an imperiously weak economy but also a failed technology base. This would likely increase the chances that North Korea's forces to adapt asymmetric and unconventional warfare techniques in an event of an escalating scenario as opposed to placing offensive priority on their conventional and hardware-oriented forces. Hardware oriented forces include tanks, armored and heavy weapons formations which may be vulnerable to the Southern force's coordination and firepower, sensory and targeting capabilities. North Korea’s military forces could likely have payed ardent and concerning attention to the America's conventional battles in the past and these include The First and Second Gulf Wars. The two conventional wars were largely won by American air superiority and also network centric system or battle space information integration.


Counter network centric warfare would therefore be a reference point in how North Korea can conduct its unconventional warfare capabilities. One reference of the two Gulf Wars was how to preserve command and control during an event of bombardment by U.S weapons systems. Perhaps it is not surprising then that North Korea has considerable attention on human resources or otherwise special forces. Although air power and firepower and network centric systems are a point of reference from the Gulf war, North Korea would also likely want to as a strategy objective to prolong the status of their legitimacy in an event of a war. This legitimacy circumstances arises when the military’s key agents in command and control otherwise loose the morale or willingness to further support the political regime, such as the occurrence in the second Gulf War.


The loyalty of the military would also account for the intrusion operations by the military’s southern counterpart and also China who would want to secure a buffer zone to prevent a social economic crisis. Besides the question of military loyalty, the North Korea regime may also contest with the humanitarian objectives of the joint U.S and South Korean forces. Humanitarian and also intelligence operations may seriously undermine the legitimacy question of the North Korean government. It would not be surprising therefore that the North Korean state has significant preparations for this scenario, and at its helm may be the special operations forces for internal control. Therefore contrary to the perspective that the special operations forces are used mainly for offensive purpose it is likely that they may also be used in an equally important role for internal subordination and regime control.


North Korea would also see to it that their special operations forces conduct various hybrid warfare missions in the South Korea. These primarily include reconnaissance, infiltration, conduct direct action attacks on vulnerable social military targets, coordination of artillery fire and so on. According to the thesis by American major Troy Krause titled Countering North Korean special purpose forces.. ‘Special Operations Forces were developed to meet three basic requirements: to breach the flank-less fixed defense of South Korea, to create a —second front“in the enemy's rear area, disrupting in-depth South Korean or United States reinforcements and logistical support during a conflict, and to conduct battlefield and strategic reconnaissance". The thesis then notes the method of entry into South Korea including airborne capabilities, sea borne and tunnel-based approaches.


North Korea for example is referenced to have the wooden AN-2 colt to infiltrate by air, stealth submarines, hovercraft and other amphibious and or unconventional arsenals. The research elaborates on the need for target detection and especially the need for destroying amphibious light infantry to deny the DPRK the chance to gain a second front. Besides target detection there is also the emphasis on the need for securing areas concerning rear operations including civilian oriented targets, logistical centers, ports, airbases and possibly civilian leadership. Although Krause's thesis provides a valuable insight into the North Korean’s special purpose forces and their capabilities there are however some factors that may not be relevant for the later stages of 21st century battlefield environment as the paper was written in 1999. These may include for example the use of communication based reflexive warfare capabilities, DIY and regional partnerships for military technology, electronic warfare potential and new target detection systems that would alleviate the problems of an exposed rears in the south.


The military of North Korea may well be looking extensively at the social security circumstances in the Middle East so it can learn new developments in applying asymmetric and or unconventional warfare. In the view of the Middle East, North Korea is a security partner with the Islamic republic of Iran. The two states's armies had shared expertise with one another in the past. North Korea has a regional ally, the People's Republic of China. One such benefits from the geopolitical Alliance between North Korea and China is the potential connectivity to the latter’s global positioning satellite system named Beidou. In the context of rear operations, having significant global positioning capability is highly important to securely coordinate the maneuver of forces and especially if it concerns a chain of coordinated, multi task maneuvers. Drone technology and also new communication equipment would also inevitably be a point of reference for the future arsenal considerations for North Korea's special purpose forces.


Commercially available drones have played a large part in the on going civil war in the Middle East and this is partly due to its low cost and commercial availability. China has also been active in drone production in the past and may supply North Korea and specifically its special purpose forces with modern drone capabilities. Besides Drones there could also be fire control and electronic based anti-vehicle weaponry with systems such as the Russian Kornet or the Hongjian – 8 wire guided anti-tank system. The special purpose forces may have access to asymmetric‘quantitative’ advantages including for transportation, personnel and firepower support. One such advantage for example is to create more diversionary forces such as unmanned vehicles to over whelm South Korean defensive systems and coordination of targeting systems. Aside from these however there are also the advantage of stealth and maneuverability.


Because of the infantry-based capabilities of the special purpose forces and South Korea’s high level of urbanization, the North Korean special purpose forces may likely capitalize on their ability to secure urban areas as opposed to non - urbanized, rural or mountainous terrains. The emphasis is more on urban oriented operations is likely to escape the signal and probing by South Korean forces around more open spaces and impede the use of firepower by hiding among high collateral areas and possibly around major towns and cities.

North Korea’s special purpose forces however would likely face an unmitigated major weakness for its rear operations. This is the ability to re supply its forces conducting rear maneuvers. Because as Krause’s thesis stated a key to mitigating the North Korea special purpose forces is target detection. This implies that the North Korea war planners would have to account for the need for deception-based resupply operations.


North Korea therefore would not only find it trouble some to move its forces into the staging point for future rear because of the South's firepower, but also to establish a logistics chain to supply its rear operation forces. It would make sense that because of these circumstances a large part of the priorities for these special purpose forces is for creating logistic capabilities with or without a highly mechanized logistics system and a consistent supply line. This again may require unconventional strategies that may be developed by the North. Besides logistical problems the North Korean special purpose forces would also face the need heavy weaponry and firepower arsenals for rear operations. This is because U.S – South Korean forces would likely have the advantage in armor mobility, protection and firepower platforms close to their important bases of operations and lines of supply.


Unlike the past and historic point of reference for anti-armor warfare in the Korean war is likely in the perspective of North Korean military leaders, modern Western and in extension the South's military industries are likely producing many counter measures for North Korea's personnel-based armories. The successes of the development in modular armor for example has led to its significant adoption in most major or developed militarizes in the world. Therefore North Korean forces may need to rely on artillery for its initial intrusion stage and then fall back to defensive measures based on vehicle or personnel based anti-armor weaponry during operations with greater extension into South Korea's rear.


Besides the general use of asymmetric tactics the North Korean special forces may rely on specific asymmetric tactics and strategies. These may include.



~ Civil infiltration and cell networks. This strategy emphasize placing SPFs into urban or familiarized areas to conduct espionage, diversionary attacks and other asymmetric objectives to establish a continued operation along the rear.


~ Use of targeting cells. More specific to the point above is to use fire control and reconnaissance cells to provide specified targets for North Korean artillery.


~ Use of disorientation tactics. This is to possibly attack civil and military targets to cause general confusion and fear to disrupt political and military objectives. Likely with asymmetric tactics.


~ Use of limited but high intensity strikes. This is to address the potential lack of supply in the enemy's rear. This limits the SPFs forces to conserve firepower to limited and surgical actions. 

~ Use of violence of action. This is to rely on shock and awe tactics to disrupt civil and military counter forces.


Other strategical considerations. 


~ SPFs may have an unofficial relationship with Chinese military and defense industry liaisons. These may relate to technology and supply exchanges to build the SPFs asymmetric tactics with better intelligence of modern weapon systems utilized by U.S and South Korean forces. China's increases in military expenditure and technology developments in the 21st century has enabled China to develop many arms that were traditionally the monopolies of Western and Soviet industries. 


~ Use of chemical and biological weapons. North Korea is known to have developed chemical and biological agents.  Their role may be for tactical and also strategic purposes to mitigate the likelihood of a lack of a stable supply chains for rear operations. 


South Korea would have inevitably invested in many targeting and sensory systems and these may include anti drone or anti weapons and aircraft systems. South Korea for example operates the K30 Biho which is an all-terrain self-propelled anti-aircraft cannon. South Korea however only operates 176 of this anti-aircraft system however it could be that one of the reasons for their acquisition is to prevent the asymmetric airborne abilities that the North would likely create. With this in mind is also coastal defense and sensory systems along the South Korean coastlines, these include for example is the rumored new HDS – 400 submarines. Thermograph technology and their military applications are well known and are not exclusive to drone surveillance and ground applications. These would likely be used during a circumstance when North Korean forces operate against sensitive installations or sites or hiding among rural or mountainous terrain.


According to Krause’s paper a large part of the measure to counter special purpose forces include using attack helicopters and with regard to general synergy between different forces to locate, track and destroy the SPF’s maritime capabilities. Although attack helicopters are one method of countering sea borne infiltration this is not the only main solution however. Other alternative may include adopting more fast attack boats, increasing surveillance concentration along the coast and using artillery or bombings to disable North Korea’s sea borne bases for their SPFs. With that in mind South Korea would need to consider the different counter measures against the challenges presented by North Korea’s SPFs. These may manifest in different ways and they include.


1. Creating a dedicated rear guard, a rear-guard formation may be established to secure the avenues of access of North Korean forces into the South. An effective rear guard may emphasize building of different capabilities such as network - centric synergy and also drilling of defensive techniques and procedures in specified scenarios and in specific areas of operations. There should also be the use of adequate supporting capabilities to counter light infantry tactics, for example the use of drones and precise fire support. 


2. Developing counter mobility and access measures to counter infiltration operations, it is important to identify the potential routes of maneuvers for the special purpose forces and that they can be signaled to South Korean forces and counter acted with an adequate amount of surveillance and firepower capabilities respectively. This requires a level of coordination between different combat units and their supporting structures to respond to air, land and or coastal routes. 


3. Mobilize an active reserve. Krause’s research emphasizes the need for reserves to play an active part in counter SPFs. Reserve formations should be aware of their role and be trained adequately for their mission. Due to the tactical literacy and mobile terms the enemy likely would possess it is therefore imperative that the reserve forces have adequate individual, reconnaissance and small unit training.


4. Create dedicated counter cell and counter infiltration units. This is to develop strategies and capabilities to detect, alert, coordinate and attack infiltration units and possibly in civil areas. In other words this would be a unit dedicated to counter the actions of the SPFs.  This may be in the form of special operations personnel or with specialized or light infantry units. South Korea has its own special operations command named SOCKOR. This is self-explanatory and the objective is to create enough personnel to coordinate counter SPF's expansion into the rear. 


5. Create civil education. If SPF activities concern urban or civil based areas then there may be the need to train civilians to identify probable intrusion activities. 


It is important to highlight that North Korea’s special purpose forces is a continuing force which would likely inevitably shift to new technologies in the later stages of 21st century and especially to that of counter network centric and asymmetric tactics and strategies. It is also important to note that the forces may be used as important command control participants because of their specialized role and discipline which reduces the risk of in subordination between different North Korean formations in an event of full scale war. Continued technical procurement would lead to orientations with more drone based and other geographically coordinated tactics with reference to connectivity with Chinese global positioning systems along with traditional rear infantry maneuvers. North Korea's special forces however may face significant issues in their operations because of South Korea’s immense signals and firepower capabilities therefore it is plausible that special purpose forces will have difficulty in cementing their intrusion and most importantly their line of supplies into the South for a continued rear operation.


Therefore it could well be possible that the Force would adopt some form of strategy to take advantage of urban spaces and high urban density to reduce their chances of being killed or capture in an event of an intrusion operation in war.


#NorthKorea #War #Specialforces #Northkoreanarmy





Reference list;

Michael S. Durtschi , 1995. The North Korea special purpose forces, an assessment of the threat. Naval post graduate school. Available at; https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:drxJc3gij84J:https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/31544/95Mar_Durtschi.pdf%3Fsequence%3D1%26isAllowed%3Dy+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=hk

2016. Defense white paper.  Ministry of defense, South Korea. Available at; http://www.mnd.go.kr/user/mndEN/upload/pblictn/PBLICTNEBOOK_201705180357180050.pdf

Krause, P T. 1999 Countering North Korea’s special purpose forces. USAF Air command and staff college. Available at; http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/acsc/99-102.pdf

WashingtonPost 2017. North Korean special operations forces are numerous and formidable. Available at ; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/04/26/north-koreas-special-operations-forces-are-numerous-mysterious-and-formidable/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.240772256d71

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