What Kind of Threat Do N.Korea's Special Forces Pose?

Pundits were intrigued Tuesday by claims from the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea that North Korean special forces troops consist of 60,000 specialized troops and 140,000 light infantry soldiers. The South Korean government's 2010 Defense White Paper mentions that North Korea beefed up its special forces from 180,000 to 200,000 but does not elaborate on their makeup.

◆ More Light Infantry

The 140,000 troops described by Gen. Walter Sharp as being light infantry soldiers are lightly armed and are trained to infiltrate deep behind enemy lines to destroy key installations and engage in black ops. North Korea beefed up special forces troops by 80,000 over the last four years, and most of them are apparently with the light infantry.

According to the 2010 Defense White Paper, North Korea formed these light infantry units throughout the military and continues to bolster their numbers.

"North Korea probably learned from watching the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that guerrilla operations using light infantry soldiers could deliver major blows to South Korean and U.S. troops," a South Korean military source speculated. "The U.S. military perceives the strengthened North Korean special operations capability as a serious threat."

◆ Crack Squads

The 60,000-strong crack squads are apparently made up of its main special forces units, the 11th or so-called "Storm" Corps, air force and naval commandos who would be parachuted into enemy territory, and reconnaissance units. They reportedly undergo rigorous training that tests the limits of human endurance. Lee Kwang-soo, a North Korean spy who was captured during a botched submarine infiltration operation back in 1996, said, "One special forces soldier trains more than three hours a day to take on and defeat three to 15 enemies and practices target shooting more than 3,000 times before infiltration."

Special troops who could infiltrate South Korea on land may either walk or use underground tunnels, while naval units have 130 hovercraft or 260 landing vessels at their disposal. The airborne units are expected to be deployed by mobilizing 170 aging but low-flying AN-2 transport planes that are difficult to detect by radar and 130 helicopters.

There are 10,000 naval special troops capable of infiltrating across the border and 5,000 airborne special forces soldiers, according to South Korean intelligence estimates.

Highly trained North Korean crack squads could deliver a considerable blow to South Korea if they infiltrate deep behind the front lines. During the botched submarine infiltration in 1996, a total of 1.5 million South Korean soldiers and police had to be mobilized to search for a mere 26 North Korean operatives and 26 submarine crewmembers who fled into the mountains of Gangwon Province.

Experts say South Korea faces considerable hurdles to dealing with a full-blown infiltration by North Korean special forces using transport planes and hovercrafts. South Korea has only 20,000 elite special troops -- 10,000 in the Army, plus Navy Seals and Air Force and Marine units. That means the South Korea is outnumbered 10 to one.

englishnews@chosun.com / Feb. 09, 2011 13:02 KST