This Picture Means Trouble: 200,000 North Korean Special Forces

Kyle Mizokami

Key point: North Korea has prepared for years to carry out operations behind enemy lines.

One of the most vital parts of North Korea’s war machine is one that relies the most on so-called “soldier power” skills. North Korea has likely the largest special-forces organization in the world, numbering two hundred thousand men—and women—trained in unconventional warfare. Pyongyang’s commandos are trained to operate throughout the Korean Peninsula, and possibly beyond, to present an asymmetric threat to its enemies.

For decades North Korea maintained an impressive all-arms force of everything from tanks to mechanized infantry, artillery, airborne forces and special forces. The country’s conventional forces, facing a long slide after the end of the Cold War, have faced equipment obsolescence and supply shortages—for example, North Korea has very few tanks based on the 1970s Soviet T-72, and most are still derivatives of the 1960s-era T-62. The rest of Pyongyang’s armored corps are in a similar predicament, making them decidedly inferior to U.S. and South Korean forces.

In response, North Korea has upped the importance of its special forces. The country maintains twenty-five special-forces and special-purpose brigades, and five special-forces battalions, designed to undertake missions from frontline DMZ assault to parachute and assassination missions. The Light Infantry Training Guidance Bureau, part of the Korean People’s Army, functions as a kind of analog to U.S. Special Operations Command, coordinating the special forces of the Army, Army Air Force and Korean People’s Navy.

Of North Korea’s two hundred thousand “commandos,” approximately 150,000 belong to light infantry units. Foot mobile, their frontline mission is to infiltrate or flank enemy lines to envelop or mount rear attacks on enemy forces. North Korea’s hilly terrain lends itself to such tactics, as does the network of tunnels that the country has dug that cross the DMZ in a number of places. Eleven of North Korea’s special forces brigades are light-infantry brigades, and there are smaller light-infantry units embedded within individual NK combat divisions.

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