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North Korea’s Special Operations forces are numerous, mysterious and formidable

North Korean special forces soldiers march during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 15. (Reuters)
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Dozens of Special Operations troops marched in North Korea’s military parade this month, covered from head to toe in green, brown and black camouflage. Carrying variants of the Kalashnikov rifle with high-capacity “helical” magazines, they shouted slogans in support of Kim Jong Un, seemingly delighting the North Korean leader as he watched.

The scene underscored a long-held understanding about Pyongyang’s military: Special Operations troops have an outsize role. An assessment of those forces will likely come up Wednesday when the Trump administration hosts an unusual White House briefing for lawmakers about North Korea’s military capabilities, as Washington pressures Pyongyang to halt its advancing nuclear weapons program.

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In the past few years, national security analysts and senior defense officials have suggested that it may not be North Korea’s ballistic missiles or artillery that are used to launch a large-scale attack on South Korea or U.S. installations, but North Korean commandos potentially armed with chemical or biological weapons.

The Pentagon also last year realigned its efforts to counter weapons of mass destruction under U.S. Special Operations Command, rather than U.S. Strategic Command, which has other missions that range from space operations to missile defense. A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations, said at the time that he considered the situation with North Korea very uncertain and that defense officials were preparing contingency plans.

North Korean Special Operations troops have been involved in some of the country’s most notorious military operations over the past few decades. They include a 1968 raid on South Korea’s capital of Seoul that led to fatalities on both sides and a 1996 incident in which a North Korean reconnaissance submarine ran aground in South Korean waters, prompting a manhunt, firefights and an eventual statement of regret from Pyongyang.

The coastlines of South Korea are far from population centers, but vulnerable to amphibious raids and assaults, according to a 1999 assessment by a U.S. Army officer at the Air Command and Staff College. North Korea’s elite forces could arrive in the south by hovercraft, helicopter, submarine, parachute, tunnel or boat, it found. North Korea also has elite airborne soldiers who fly in small, wooden planes known as the AN2 Colt, invading by air.

The exact number and capabilities of North Korean Special Operations forces are not known, but a 2015 Defense Department report to Congress suggests there at least 180,000 commandos  — roughly the same number of U.S. Marines on active duty. The report added that while it was unlikely that North Korea would launch an attack so large that it prompts an overwhelming response from the United States and South Korea, Pyongyang may see value in smaller asymmetric attacks, in which special operations often play a role.

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“Strategic SOF [Special Operations Force] units dispersed across North Korea appear designed for rapid offensive operations, internal defense against foreign attacks, or limited attacks against vulnerable targets in the ROK [Republic of Korea] as part of a coercive diplomacy effort,” the report said. “They operate in specialized units, including reconnaissance, airborne and seaborne insertion, commandos, and other specialties. All emphasize speed of movement and surprise attack to accomplish their missions.”

One example cited is a 2015 incident in which land mines maimed two South Korean soldiers near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Seoul accused North Korean troops of sneaking into the DMZ to lay the mines and threatened to make Pyongyang pay a disproportionate “harsh price,” but ultimately took no action.

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Bruce Bennett, a national security analyst with the Rand Corp., said it’s feasible Pyongyang could rely more on Special Operations troops to carry out provocations in the future that are hard to tie to the North Korean government, such as bombings in South Korea. It’s unlikely they’d be involved in carrying out a nuclear attack considering the size of the munitions North Korea is developing, but commandos could wield biological weapons, he said.

Bennett, who testified before Congress in 2013 on the threat North Korean biological weapons pose, said the February assassination of Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half brother, showed that North Korea possesses VX nerve agent, one of the most potent chemical weapons. The country also likely has the nerve agent sarin and the ability to wage biological warfare with germs like anthrax, cholera, plague and smallpox, Bennett said.

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The South Korean military has countered the threat of North Korean commandos in a number of ways, including erecting tall fences with barbed wire around waterways leading from North Korea and building guard towers from which any infiltration or massing of troops can be observed.

Recent U.S. military exercises in South Korea, such as Foal Eagle in March, have focused at least in part on countering North Korean commandos. Foal Eagle included scenarios in which the Pentagon launched “decapitation raids” on North Korean leaders and military strikes on nuclear facilities.

More than 28,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea. Naval forces, including the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its accompanying ships, also have been deployed near the Korean Peninsula in recent days. As of Monday, the carrier was in the Philippine Sea, to the south of South Korea, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

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