North Korean media recently showed leader Kim Jong Un viewing 150 commandos practicing for a wartime mission that consisted of parachuting onto a major South Korean airport and causing maximum destruction and disruption. What was surprising about this rare public airing of commando training in North Korea was that what was shown was the only kind of training the commandos get these days. If it requires fuel, ammo or any other resource it is unlikely to happen. North Korea is increasingly so broke that even the military is forced to cope with major shortages. This has been going on, and getting worse each year, since the 1990s when Russian aid in the form of cash, food, fuel and military gear was cut off. The commando forces were the last to feel the shortages. Since 2008 even the commando forces have had to make do without. Even so, the North Korean special operations troops are still a formidable force.
North Korea has long maintained elite commando forces, troops who were carefully selected, then paid, housed and fed better, and given access to better equipment. About 15 percent of the 1.2 million North Korean military personnel are in these elite units. Since North Korean conscripts serve for six years, there’s enough time to train even draftees to special operations levels of capabilities. Service in these units are sought after because not only do they mean better treatment while in the military but better career opportunities after military service. Most of these North Korea special operations troops are similar to U.S. rangers, marines, paratroopers or special reconnaissance troops (U.S. Marine Force Recon and army LURPS).
There are also some 30,000 snipers, organized into ten Sniper Brigades. This is a rather unique use of snipers, and given shortages of ammunition in the north, it's uncertain how well these troops, no matter how well selected, are at sniping. If you want to maintain your shooting skills, you have to fire thousands of rounds a year. The same applies for all elite troops, although a lot of the training just consists of physical conditioning and combat drills. For snipers, this consists practicing staying hidden. This can be accomplished, if you can keep the troops well fed and housed. This is no longer the case with many of the Special Forces, and morale is suffering.
At the apex of North Korean Special Forces there are about five thousand commando and U.S. Special Forces type troops. These are meant to get into South Korea and go after key targets and people. Again, the North Koreans have trained for half a century to do this, but have not been able to actually put these troops to the test much. There have been thousands of small operations in the south over the last half century. In the 1960s there was a low level war going on, as the North Koreans sent dozens of small teams south each year. Over a hundred American troops were killed or wounded, and many more South Korean soldiers and police. Yet, the North Koreans had little success.
While the top special operations units are still well cared for, more and more reports come out of the north about many less skilled special operations troops complaining about less, or at least lower quality, food and other problems (like less access to electricity year round, and heat during the Winter.) More of these troops are deserting and heading for China, where they can be more easily interviewed. Some have made it all the way to South Korea, where the extent of their numbers and preparations has pushed South Korean commanders to increase their security preparations, and train more troops to deal with all these commandos in war time.
While the North Korean special operations troops are grumbling about not getting all the training resources (ammo and fuel) they need, they remain a highly motivated and generally loyal force. The government uses these troops to insure the loyalty of the other 85 percent of the military, and more and more elite troops are being used to assist the secret police in going after dissidents and corrupt officials. This is probably hurting the North Korean special operations forces more than anything else. The troops are getting a close look at the corruption and contradictions in North Korea. The troops generally live in closed bases and don't get out much. But now that they do, they see a North Korea that is unpleasant, and not as swell as their commanders told them it was. It turns out those letters they were getting from home were not exaggerating how bad things were. And the trend has been down for so long, it's hard to assure the troops that there's any way up.
Meanwhile South Korea has improved its air defenses along the DMZ. For over half a century North Korea has prepared to fly small single engine transports into South Korea by coming in so low the radar could not pick it up. South Korea can now detect such low flying aircraft and has weapons on the DMZ to quickly shoot down intruders. The pilots of these aircraft are not as skilled as they used to be, especially for low altitude night flying, because fuel shortages have sharply cut training time in the air.