In an elaborate military parade this past weekend designed to set the stage for another spectacular missile test, North Korea rolled out the highest profile heavy hitters in its arsenal. The occasion landed on what would have been North Korea’s founding father Kim Il-Sung’s 105th birthday, and was speculated to coincide with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) sixth nuclear weapon test or missile launch.

The biggest news story to come from the display of raw military power was the failed missile launch, which some believe to have been potentially thwarted by a U.S. cyber-attack. But buried behind the entertaining imagery of a glorious communist missile exploding just after take-off, some news agencies have been reporting on the appearance of a “brand new” North Korean Special Operations Force (SOF).

The intimidating images of these DPRK SOF soldiers in formation carrying what appears to be some sort of modified rifle were usually accompanied with frightening details of the primary mission of the special mission unit: kidnapping westerners. This information reportedly came from a North Korean defector, who said he had been ‘brainwashed’ and indoctrinated as part of belonging to the “11th Storm Corps,” which owns the kidnapping mission.

Whether this particular defector is a legitimate source or not, North Korea has conducted numerous kidnappings abroad over the decades. Most of these kidnappings fit a larger North Korean strategy of intimidation and provocation, looking to goad South Korea or the US into reacting or overreacting and legitimizing the DPRK’s position on the world stage.

But North Korean Special Operations Forces fill a role that directly supports the primary mission of the DPRK military as a whole, which is focused almost exclusively on winning a land war against its neighbors to the south. Their conventional military is massive, with 1.1 million active duty soldiers and 8.2 million in the reserves. With sheer numbers alone, the DPRK’s military is the 4th largest in the world. Where their enormous military runs into trouble is with logistics. DPRK’s paltry economy means they are only capable of feeding and supplying so many of their troops at any one time, and so would rely heavily on calling up their reserve forces in the event of war.

Given the massive concentration of conventional forces from the DPRK, ROK, and US armies packed onto the narrow Korean Peninsula near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) splitting North and South Korea, DPRK SOF focus on infiltration and sabotage attacks, in order to sow confusion and damage infrastructure among ROK and US forces as they fight the main assault of the conventional DPRK army, air force, and navy along the DMZ. They also would attempt to establish a second front, likely in the far south of the Korean Peninsula, to pull ROK and US forces away from the primary assault along the DMZ.

The reconnaissance brigades within the DPRK SOF train on assassination missions as well, which have actually been deployed before. In what is perhaps the most famous use of DPRK SOF, the 1968 ‘Blue House Raid’ demonstrated North Korea’s willingness to risk war when it infiltrated a specially selected and trained assassination force consisting of 31 of the most elite soldiers in North Korea. The only known North Korean survivor of the unit, known as Unit 124, described their selection process.

“Our training in the special forces was all about survival. We climbed a mountain higher than 1,000 meters alone and tried to survive. Of 100,000 agents who went through such training, 31 were handpicked to form the 124th Special Forces Unit,” said Kim Shin-jo. “We were the cream of the crop, chosen to raid the Blue House.” The Blue House is the primary residence of the South Korean president, and the mission of Unit 124 was to infiltrate South Korea and kill South Korean President Park Chung Hee. The mission was ultimately a failure, with 28 of the 31 commandos being killed over the course of a few days.

So despite scary looking pictures of North Korean soldiers with night vision devices (which may or may not be real) on their helmets, this ‘new Special Operations unit’ is likely not new at all, and also not likely to bring any new fundamental capability to the North Korean military.

Image courtesy of the Daily Star