North Korea frequently taunts its rivals with a nuclear destruction, and despite its own dire economic and social situation, Pyongyang certainly has the military capabilities to instigate a war that could kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

Nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, thousands of artillery pieces, and millions of fanatical troops are the core of the North Korean threat. But Kim Jong Un has another ace up his sleeve: potent special operations forces.

Not much is known about this force, but recent revelations by a senior North Korean spy who defected offer some insight into how Pyongyang’s commandos train and fight.


North Korea’s Commandos

North Korea military parade special forces
North Korean special-forces soldiers at a parade for the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. (Photo by Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

The Korean People’s Army (KPA) is one of the largest in the world, with an active-duty force of about 1.3 million. Pyongyang also has more than 200,000 special operators organized in standard formations, such as brigades, regiments, battalions, and in even smaller, more specialized outfits.

The typical special-operations unit has between 3,000 and 5,000 commandos and falls under the different branches of the North Korean military and under Pyongyang’s intelligence service, the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

North Korean special operations units can be divided by specialty.

Reconnaissance units specialize in collecting intelligence and passing it back to headquarters. Airborne units can infiltrate by air and seize and hold targets like airfields or bridges. Maritime units can infiltrate from submarines or ships and conduct littoral raids. Commando units can conduct direct-action operations, such as raids.