North Korea Massively Increases Its Special Forces

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 9, 2009

SEOUL -- North Korea has massively increased its special operations forces, schooled them in the use of Iraqi-style roadside bombs and equipped them to sneak past the heavily fortified border that divides the two Koreas.

By expanding what was already the world's largest special operations force, the North appears to be adding commando teeth to what, in essence, is a defensive military strategy. The cash-strapped government of Kim Jong Il, which struggles to maintain and buy fuel for its aging tanks and armor, has concluded it cannot win a conventional war, according to U.S. and South Korean military officials.

But by combining huge numbers of special forces with artillery that can devastate Seoul and missiles that can pound all of South Korea, North Korea has found an affordable way to remain terrifying, ensure regime survival and deter a preemptive strike on the nuclear bombs that make it a player on the world stage, say U.S. and South Korean military analysts.

"The North Koreans have done what they had to do to make sure their military is still a credible threat," said Bruce E. Bechtol Jr., a North Korea specialist who is a professor at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico. "They can still inflict tens of thousands of civilian casualties in Seoul on the first day of combat."

The havoc-raising potential of North Korea's special forces has grown as their numbers have increased and their training has shifted to terrorist tactics developed by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. forces in Korea.

"The capability is really very large, and they will use these tactics," Sharp told reporters recently in Washington.

In a conflict, tens of thousands of special forces members would try to infiltrate South Korea: by air in radar-evading biplanes, by ground through secret tunnels beneath the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and by sea aboard midget submarines and hovercraft, according to South Korean and U.S. military analysts.

Disguised in the uniforms of South Korean police and military personnel, special forces are also expected to try to walk into Seoul. Dressed as civilians, they may also arrive aboard passenger flights from Beijing and other foreign capitals.

"These are not your standard North Korean guys," Bechtol said. "They are the best-trained, best-fed and most indoctrinated soldiers in the North. They know how to fight, and if they are caught, they are trained to kill themselves."

Their primary mission, in the event of war, is to leapfrog the DMZ and create chaos among the 20.5 million residents of greater Seoul, while harassing South Korean and U.S. forces in rear areas, military and intelligence experts said.

It has been 41 years since North Korea mounted a commando raid inside South Korea, but the South has been forced to respond to an old threat turned new.

South Korea's army is trying to improve the mobility of its trench-bound frontline infantry and has canceled plans to reduce some reserve units. It has reversed the long-planned removal of a special warfare command from southern Seoul and has begun moves to buy advanced transport planes to deliver its special forces inside North Korea.

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