The threat of North Korea’s special forces has recently become much more real to many people. And while that is good, a considerable portion of what has recently made headlines was published in the 2008 defense white paper. The white paper said North Korea boosted the number of special forces troops from 120,000 to 180,000 and deployed them in the frontline divisions, and reinforced special warfare capabilities by conducting night-time, mountain and street-fighting exercises.
But at the time the news was overshadowed by the North’s nuclear weapons, or the seriousness of the threat these special forces could pose was overlooked.
At the time, I asked a former senior North Korean military officer who is now involved with a security agency here what the sharp increase in the number of North Korean special forces means. Most of all, I wanted to know why the troops were deployed at the front, whereas their usual mission is to infiltrate into the rear.
His answer was simple. The North’s special forces have three missions — first, to damage our forces’ war capability by infiltrating into the rear and carrying out subversive activities; second, to explore a route for maneuver along with combat engineers; and last, to occupy key tactical and strategic points. But those missions are confined to wartime.
They also have shooting brigades and reconnaissance units that work with the Army, Navy and Air Force, and they have been engaged in provocations against the South during peacetime as well. For instance they dug tunnels to infiltrate the South on the ground and operate a large number of AN-2 transport planes and 70-odd submarines and mini-subs fit for infiltration by sea.
Pyongyang makes great efforts to study and train in ways of infiltrating the South. A Korean Peninsula military specialist at the RAND Corporation in the U.S. warned over a decade ago that a combination of portable weapons of mass destruction and over 100,000-strong special forces constitutes the biggest North Korean threat to Seoul’s security. It would be a great calamity if North Korean special forces infiltrated downtown Seoul equipped with small biological and chemical weapons. The troops that would be mobilized if Pyongyang decided to launch a local provocation like occupying the five South Korean islets off the west coast would also be special forces.
These men are told to ready themselves for suicide missions. If they attack determined to blow themselves up, they could threaten even the top-notch weapons system of the South Korean and U.S. forces. How to deal with that threat? It is all the more worrying since there are plans to reduce the strength of the U.S. Forces Korea’s Apache helicopter unit, which is tasked with keeping the North’s special forces in check.
Seoul must first clearly understand the missions of the North Korean special forces and work out measures to respond to each of them. We have to reinforce our intelligence gathering about the scale, moves and training of these troops. And operational plans must be developed that would neutralize them before they can move.
The surest way of blocking any so-called “asymmetrical” provocation, be it by special forces or other means, is to extinguish the will to provocation itself. There is no other way but to demonstrate that we are ready and willing to inflict enormous damage on whoever provokes us. We need to change the way we build up our own military strength to prepare for this. But a more important principle is to consolidate our superiority in terms of the military, government and society and stifle the North’s desire to provoke from the outset. The build-up of North Korea’s special forces is an urgent challenge to our security and defense capabilities.
By Baek Seung-joo, a senior analysts at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses