Special Operations: Turning The Tables In Korea


February 26, 2017: South Korea has since 2015 been adapting its military organization and strategy to deal with the rapidly changing situation in North Korea. For example South Korea has organized six special operations teams that are trained to attack and destroy key targets inside North Korea. This represents a major change in special operations in Korea because since the 1950s it was North Korea that was constantly sending commandos and spies into South Korea where not all of them were quickly caught or caught at all. At the same time until recently it has proved nearly impossible to get foreign agents into North Korea, which had been turned into the ultimate police state since its creation right after World War II. Since the 1990s the lack of Russian aid (which kept North Korea afloat since the 1950s) caused the North Korean military to gradually (and almost imperceptibly) fall apart. This accelerated because of growing economic problems and corruption, even spreading to the secret police and other security agencies. As a result South Korea considers North Korea vulnerable and is preparing to take advantage of that during the next military emergency. If nothing else it compels the North Koreans to spend a lot more on protecting their nuclear weapons. The latest revision of South Korean strategy specifically mentioned plans to go after nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and key leaders. Much of this will be done with the new strike aircraft (F-15Es) carrying stealthy cruise missiles and smart bombs. South Korea also has obtained more missiles that can hit the North Korean forces concentrated near the border (DMZ or Demilitarized Zone).

South Korea has revealed more and more about the targets in the north and it now includes the senior leadership, even if they are in their fortified and, until recently, carefully hidden refuges. Letting that information go public is another blow to the morale of the North Korean leadership and the special operations troops that now guard them.

North Korea, which has long maintained large numbers of special operations troops, has seen the capabilities of these troops shrink because of shortages of food, fuel, ammunition and maintenance. In North Korea special operations troops are still carefully selected, then paid, housed and fed better and given access to better equipment. But there far less of everything up there and even the well trained people with guns and a license to kill are feeling it. About twelve percent of the million North Korean military personnel are in these elite units and many of them are openly complaining about the shortages and aging equipment.

A growing number of North Korea special operations troops are being quietly shifted to defensive duties, guarding key sites from the threat of South Korea commando attack. It was no secret that this threat was growing because in 2011 South Korea decided to modify four of its dozen C-130 transports to the American MC-130 special operations standard. This will enable South Korean commandos to fly into North Korea in the event of another war or, more likely, a collapse of the North Korean government. Because of their burgeoning electronics and aircraft manufacturing and maintenance industries, South Korea is one of the few countries that can upgrade a stock C-130 into an MC-130 without American aid. The 70 ton MC-130H has a crew of seven, a cruise speed of 480 kilometers an hour and can carry 77 passengers, 52 paratroopers or 18 tons of cargo. South Korea has been getting more helicopters, many of them made in South Korea. At lot of new equipment for South Korean commandos is made in South Korea as well. It’s increasingly easy for their North Korean counterparts to find out about all this new gear, and where it came from. That adds to the demoralization.

Since North Korean conscripts still serve for at least 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 rest 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.

South Korea has fewer (about 20,000) special operations troops but they are trained and equipped to a higher (Western) standard. 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.


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