North Korean Special Forces

Recent decades have seen a slew of mass media on Special Operations Forces (SOF). Understandably, these largely focus on Western units; SEAL Team 6 aka DEVGRU, CAG aka Delta Force, GRU Spetsnaz, etc. However, nations worldwide understand the utility of cultivating a community of highly trained troops equipped with the best gear available for dangerous but essential missions. As part of our exploration of Special Operations Forces (SOF) units from around the world, this article focuses on the SOF capabilities of North Korea.

1.0: The Quiet War: Early SOF History

The early history of North Korean SOF is difficult to determine, given the state’s propensity for secrecy. 1966 marks the first presumable actions by the North Korean SOF (source). From ‘66-69, while the United States (US) propped up South Vietnam, North Korean forces staged cross-border raids into the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which separated the two nations following the ‘conclusion’ of the Korean War (source). This so-called “Quiet War” was an effort by the Korean People’s Army (KPA) to “foment insurrection” in the South (source). The term comes from US and South Korean efforts to downplay the events so that another war on the peninsula could be avoided (source).

Throughout 1966, infiltrators ambushed Republic of Korea (ROK), troops, while they were conducting routine sweeps or garrisoning watch posts, killing 28 in October alone (source). On 2 November 1966, a KPA raiding party ambushed an American patrol, wiping the eight-man team out and leaving only one survivor (source). US and South Korean forces recorded 42 North Korean raids, presumably undertaken by SOF personnel (source). Infiltration of the highly militarised DMZ was extremely difficult; physical barriers, manned observation posts, mines, and patrols meant that only the elite soldiers could successfully undertake this task (source).

Despite heavy reinforcement of the DMZ in 1967, KPA groups continued to conduct raids to great effect (source). In 1967, 15 Americans lost their lives, while 65 were wounded (source). Over 100 ROK soldiers were killed and 200+ wounded during the same period (source). Total incidents numbered in the hundreds (source). 

1968 was the most violent year of the Quiet War (source). US forces document over 700 separate violent actions (source). This includes three incidents of a particular note (listed in chronological order); the Blue House Raid, the seizure of the USS Pueblo, and the Uljin-Samcheok landings.

1.1: Blue House Raid

A North Korean propaganda video documenting a simulated assault on the Blue House. Such material is intended for internal distribution [source].

1.2: USS Pueblo Incident

The USS Pueblo was a US Navy spy ship (source). It patrolled North Korea’s coast to monitor Soviet and North Korean naval activity in the region (source). Such occurrences were and remain commonplace (source). Given that it operated in international waters, North Korea had no legal basis for interrupting its operation (source). Yet, on 23 January 1968, North Korean forces stopped and boarded the Pueblo, taking its crew hostage (source). This event occurred just a day after the Blue House Raid.

It is unclear whether the KPA forces were SOF personnel or regular sailors. However, special forces typically conduct boarding activities in the modern era (source). Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that the forces involved in the Pueblo Incident were North Korean SOF. It is possible that modern-day North Korean naval SOF, can trace their lineage to this event (source).

1.3: Uljin-Samcheok Landings

On 30 October 1968, North Korean SOF once again attempted to infiltrate the South (source). 120 KPA commandos landed near the village of Uljin-Samcheok (also referred to as Ulchin-Samcheok, depending on the source) (source). Their mission was to build up a popular insurgency against the Moon government (source). Within two weeks, ROK forces had killed 110 infiltrators and captured seven, with three remaining unaccounted for (source). The Uljin-Samcheok landings mark North Korea’s last attempted mass infiltration during the Quiet War (source).

A large-scale training exercise involving Navy sniper brigades utilising LCACs (Landing Craft Air Cushion). Original Image: https://www.dia.mil/Portals/110/Documents/News/NKMP.pdf

1.4: North Korea Halts the Quiet War

Finally, the Quiet War unofficially concluded in 1969, after violence largely ceased in and around the DMZ (source). North Korean attempts to cross the DMZ this year only ended in failure (source). Ultimately, looking at the casualty numbers because of North Korean SOF action, it is remarkable that the Quiet War remained quiet. 70 US soldiers died, and 111 were wounded (source). South Korean casualties were markedly higher, with 299 killed and 550 wounded (source). North Korean losses number 397 dead, 12 captured, and 33 defectors (source).

2.0: Modern-Day North Korean SOF

Modern Day KPA special forces stand in marked contrast compared to their peers in the regular North Korean army (source). A May 2013 US Department of Defense report notes that “North Korean SOF are among the most highly trained, well-equipped, best-fed, and highly motivated forces in the KPA” (source). As North Korea lags further behind an ever-advancing world, it will likely rely more on its SOF capabilities (source). Indeed, the way in which the KPA refers to SOF is indicative of this notion. The Navy calls them “human torpedoes”, the Air Force, the “invincibles”, and the Army, “human bombs protecting the centre of the revolution” (source). Despite being held in high esteem, KPA SOF is less well-equipped compared to other premier units (source).

2.1: Force Distribution

US and ROK intelligence estimates that the total KPA SOF strength is roughly 200,000 (source). This is over an order of magnitude larger than during the Quiet War (source)(source). Some units attach to regular army units (source). Others join their own 3,000-5,000 strong SOF brigades (source)(source). In 2016, western intelligence discerned 25 brigades, organised into the 11th Storm Corps, a successor of the 8th Special Corps (source)(source).

2.2: Composition and Mission

  • 12 Light infantry/mechanised light infantry (source). These are attached to regular units, SOF light infantry brigades are elite shock troops (source). They will secure vital locations on the frontline and attack enemy command posts (source).
  • “Three Reconnaissance brigades” (source). Reconnaissance brigades are to operate behind enemy lines. This implies opening paths for regular units, kidnapping and assassinating key enemy targets (i.e. high-ranking officers and politicians), destroying logistical depots, and conducting reconnaissance (source).
  • Three Airborne brigades (source). Airborne brigades function as they did in WWII, operating as blocking forces to stop ROK units from overwhelming KPA beachheads (source). Additionally, in times of war, these units will destroy/capture enemy logistics bases and capture key terrain (source).
  • Three General sniper brigades (source). Sniper brigades are to infiltrate ROK defences and operate from the rear (source). To this end, snipers will disguise themselves as ROK troops, attack vulnerable command and control outposts, and facilitate a general insurrection among the civilian population (source).
  • Two Navy sniper brigades (source). Similar to general sniper brigades, navy snipers’ mission is to foment insurrection (source). They have the additional capacity to use “hi-speed boats and LCACs” (Landing Craft Air Cushion, a type of hovercraft) in attacks on naval targets (source).
  • Two Air Force sniper brigades (source). Air Force sniper brigades will attack ROK airbases and disrupt their operations (source).

2.3: Equipment

Because of its isolation, North Korean SOF units have access to “rudimentary” gear when compared to other SOF units (source). However, they receive the best possible equipment to accomplish their task, including “chemical and biological” weapons (source). Chemical weapons include “mustard, phosgene, blood agents, sarin, tabun and V-agents (persistent nerve agents)” (source). Biological weapons programs in North Korea have, at the very least, weaponised anthrax, plague, and cholera (source).

Perhaps the most distinct piece of North Korean SOF equipment is their helical magazines. These are an indigenous design distributed only to SOF. Research indicates a capacity of 100 to 150 rounds (source).

3.0: Conclusion

North Korea hosts a robust SOF community. Despite their antiquated style and lack of resources, history has shown that they are highly trained, innovative and lethal. Their training and arsenal mark them as dangerous opponents in any renewal of the Korean conflict. Given the importance placed on them by the North Korean state, they will remain a fixture of KPA plans for the foreseeable future.

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