Notes on North Korean SOF
In the early 1990s, the army was made up of a mixture of conventional and unconventional warfare forces. By any consideration, however, North Korea
has one of the world's largest special operations forces. Estimates of the size of the army's special operations forces ranged from 60,000 persons
to over 100,000 persons. The uncertainty over the number derives from both the lack of information and the varying definitions of special operations
forces. Organized into twenty-two brigades and at least seven independent battalions, the special operations forces are believed to be the best
trained and to have the highest morale of all North Korean ground forces.
Special operations forces were developed to meet three basic requirements: to breach the flankless fixed defense of South Korea; to create a "second
front" in the enemy's rear area, disrupting in-depth South Korean or United States reinforcements and logistical support during a conflict; and to
conduct battlefield and strategic reconnaissance. The ultimate goal was to create strategic dislocation. The additional missions of countering
opposing forces and internal security were added over time.
The Ministry of the People's Armed Forces controls the bulk of the special operations forces through one of two commands, the Reconnaissance Bureau
and the Light Infantry Training Guidance Bureau. The Reconnaissance Bureau is the primary organization within the Ministry of People's Armed Forces
for the collection of strategic and tactical intelligence. It also exercises operational control over agents engaged in collecting military
intelligence and in the training and dispatch of unconventional warfare teams. The Light Infantry Training Guidance Bureau is directly subordinate to
the General Staff Department. The party directly controls approximately 1,500 agents.
Operations are categorized on the basis of the echelon supported. Strategic special operations forces support national or Ministry of People's Armed
Forces objectives, operational supported corps operations, and tactical-supported maneuver divisions and brigades. Strategic missions of special
operations forces in support of national and Ministry of People's Armed Forces objectives involve reconnaissance, sniper, and agent operations, but
not light infantry operations, which primarily are tactical operations. The main objectives of these units are to secure information that cannot be
achieved by other means, neutralize targets, and disrupt rear areas. In executing these operations, special operations troops may be disguised either
as South Korean military personnel or as civilians.
Strategic missions require deep insertions either in advance of hostilities or in the initial stages by naval or air platforms. Based on available
insertion platforms, North Korea has a one-time lift capability of 12,000 persons by sea and 6,000 persons by air. Most North Korea special operations
forces infiltrate overland and are dedicated to operational and tactical missions, that is, reconnaissance and combat operations in concert with
conventional operations in the forward corps. Although it is unknown how forces will be allocated, limits on North Korea's insertion capabilities
constrain operational flexibility and determine the allocation of strategic, operational, and tactical missions.
North Korean army special operations forces units are broken down into three categories based on mission and mode of operation: agent operations,
reconnaissance, and light infantry and sniper. The Reconnaissance Bureau has four sniper brigades and at least seven independent reconnaissance
battalions. The Light Infantry Training Guidance Bureau controls fourteen light infantry/sniper brigades: six "straight-leg" brigades, six airborne
brigades, and two amphibious brigades. Four light infantry brigades of unknown subordination are under the operational control of the forward corps.
In addition, each regular infantry division and mechanized brigade has an special operations forces battalion.
Reconnaissance units are employed in rear area, strategic intelligence collection, and target information acquisition. Light infantry units operate in
company- or battalion-sized units against military, political, or economic targets. Sniper units are distinguished from light infantry units in that
their basic operational unit is the team, rather than the larger company or battalion of the light infantry unit.
A reconnaissance brigade consists of between 3,600 and 4,200 personnel. It is organized into a headquarters, rear support units, a communications
company, and ten reconnaissance battalions. The basic unit of operation is the reconnaissance team, which has from two to ten men. A light infantry
brigade has between 3,300 and 3,600 personnel organized into between five and ten battalions. The brigade can fight as a unit or disperse its
battalions for independent operations.
A sniper brigade's organization parallels that of the light infantry brigade. The unique special operations forces dedicated to strategic operations
are the two amphibious light infantry/sniper brigades subordinate to the Light Infantry Guidance Bureau. These brigades are believed deployed to Wnsan
on the east coast and Namp'o and Tasa-ri on the west coast. In organization and manpower, they are reduced versions of the regular light infantry
brigades. The two brigades have a total strength of approximately 5,000 men in ten battalions. Each battalion has about 400 men organized into five
companies each. Some amphibious brigade personnel are trained as frogmen.
In the 1970s, in support of overland insertion, North Korea began clandestine tunneling operations along the entire DMZ, with two tunnels per forward
division. By 1990 four tunnels dug on historical invasion routes from the north had been discovered by South Korean and United States tunnel
neutralization teams: three in the mid-1970s and the fourth in March 1990. The South Koreans suspect there were as many as twenty-five tunnels in the
early 1990s, but the level of ongoing tunneling is unknown.
At the operational and tactical level, infiltration tactics are designed for the leading special operations forces brigades to probe and penetrate the
weak points of the defense; disrupt the command, control, and communications nodes; and threaten lines of communication and supply. To achieve its
goal of nearterm distraction and dislocation of the defender, at least one special operations forces brigade is assigned to each of the four regular
army corps deployed along the DMZ.
The Special Operation Force "...is the strongest elite force of the entire Korean People's Army and is the unique vanguard force of the Armed
Forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."
-- Kim Il-Sung (former North Korean leader)
The Special Operations Force (SOF) of the Korean People's Army (KPA) is tasked to conduct raids in enemy rear areas and to perform reconnaissance and
intelligence operations. Trained in unconventional warfare tactics, KPA SOF units will attempt to create a second front in the Republic of Korea (ROK)
rear with clandestine infiltration and harassment tactics. In addition, raids on targets outside the Korean Peninsula possibly could be conducted.
Strength and Organization
The Ministry of People's Armed Forces (MPAF) divides SOF units into one of three categories: light infantry, reconnaissance, or sniper. Light
infantry operations are combat operations conducted with company- or battalion-sized units against military, political, or economic targets.
Team-sized elements conduct reconnaissance to collect intelligence or targeting information. Sniper operations (not to be confused with strictly
sharpshooting missions) are basically the same as light infantry except they are conducted in team-sized units.
The MPAF controls two primary commands that make up the 70,000-member SOF: the Training Unit Guidance Bureau (TUGB) and the Reconnaissance Bureau
(RB). The TUGB and RB, combined with SOF units of the forward and mechanized corps, consist of 23 SOF brigades and 18 independent SOF battalions.
Figure: Special Operations Forces Mission Planning
The TUGB is a central training and guidance command for all SOF units and also serves as a training command and a wartime controlling authority for
strategic and corps-level SOF missions. Subordinate to the TUGB are eight light infantry brigades (including three airborne), two airborne brigades,
and two amphibious brigades. The RB is the primary intelligence organization tasked to plan SOF infiltration and reconnaissance operations in the ROK.
Subordinate to the RB are nine reconnaissance battalions (including a navy and air force battalion) and a sniper brigade.
Under the control of the Forward Corps (1st, 2d, 4th, 5th) are four reconnaissance battalions, three sniper brigades, and three light infantry
brigades. Subordinate to mechanized corps are five reconnaissance battalions and four light infantry brigades.
Figure: SOF Disposition
Strategic/Operational/Tactical. Strategic SOF units support national objectives with reconnaissance and raid missions. Specifically, these units
develop targeting information, report ROK civilian and military actions, conduct post-strike assessments, and verify enemy intentions. Typical
missions would involve the location and destruction of national-level artillery; airfields; storage facilities; air defense locations; and command,
control, communication, and intelligence (C3I) assets in ROK/US rear areas. In addition, strategic units also may conduct operations that include the
kidnap and assassination of key enemy personnel.
Operational SOF units support corps objectives with light infantry and reconnaissance missions. Operational light infantry units will target critical
terrain and C3I assets, delay ROK/US reserve forces, and attack division (and higher) command posts. In addition, these units ascertain enemy
intentions, develop targeting information for SCUDs/FROGs and long-range artillery, conduct post-strike assessments, and determine locations of ROK/US
Tactical SOF units support maneuver division and brigade objectives with light infantry operations. Light infantry units attack brigade and division
command posts, capture key terrain to assist in maneuvering divisions and brigades, and destroy ROK/US reserve forces. The organic reconnaissance
company of the maneuver unit performs tactical reconnaissance. The reconnaissance company and light infantry battalion develop targets for
destruction. These targets include air defense sites, force concentrations, artillery positions, and C3I assets.
Ground Force Operations
12 to 24 Hours Prior to Attack. Under limited visibility or the cover of darkness, operational- and tactical-level SOF units will attempt to
infiltrate the DMZ attired as ROK civilians or ROK military personnel. This will be done over land and through preconstructed tunnels, led by
reconnaissance teams of five to ten men.
Figure: 10-man Reconnaissance Team
Because the DMZ is primarily mountainous, the SOF will use this terrain to provide cover, concealment, safe areas, and numerous routes for escape and
evasion. Lowlands will be used for their thick weeds, tall grass, and woods to provide cover and concealment.
Figure: SOF Team Traverses Rugged Terrain
Once past the main ROK defenses, operational- and tactical-level units will attempt to arrive undetected at pre-selected target sites that are
critical to ROK/US military operations. Typical targets include: ports, airfields, logistical points, avenues of approach, rail lines, C3I assets, and
other reinforcement areas.
Most SOF units under the KPA with strategic missions will attempt to infiltrate ROK/US rear areas by air and water. By air, this will be conducted
with the Antonov An-2 COLT, and the MD 500E helicopter (modified and painted to resemble those of the ROKAF). Rubber rafts, midget subs, high-speed
boats, and merchant ships reflect only a few of the many water infiltration possibilities.
Figure: Airborne Assault on an Airfield
In the time remaining prior to a target assault, reconnaissance patrols will attempt to gather detailed information on the target and clear any
obstacles (mines, barbed wire, etc.) that might slow or deter an attack. Unit personnel will then receive a detailed briefing on the mission
objective, conduct equipment inspections, and wait for the main invasion across the DMZ (H-hour).
Figure: Covert SOF Activities
H-hour. At H-Hour, pre-positioned SOF units within ROK/US rear areas will attack targets as massive artillery and rocket attacks are initiated from
north of the DMZ. This is intended to weaken critical defense areas and create optimum confusion for ROK/US forces. Simultaneously, additional SOF
units will slip through the DMZ, be inserted by air, and land on South Korean beaches.
As soon as the artillery fire ceases, first echelon SOF reconnaissance units will move forward to probe ROK/US lines for weak resistance. Where holes
are found, penetration is attempted. If successful, light infantry SOF assets will proceed engage critical enemy targets. When possession or
destruction of a target is obtained, SOF units quickly pass possession to follow-on infantry and mechanized forces to consolidate gains and deny
Disengagement/Retreat. When SOF units are forced to leave a position, they can be expected to act as a delaying, or covering force. SOF units will
attempt to occupy terrain where approaches and attack options are limited, thereby greatly increasing firepower against a pursuing superior force.
The KPA SOF possess extensive experience in unconventional warfare tactics. Based on precedence set by the Korean War, the North Korean SOF soldier
can be expected to utilize inhospitable terrain, infiltrate ROK/US lines, establish a second front, and operate within the allied rear with little
logistical support. Depending on the mission, SOF units will endeavor to neutralize critical ROK/US military targets.