A defense ministry official from South Korea has told CNN that their military is developing a special forces unit designed from its very inception to target and kill controversial North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the event of war between the two nations.

Although CNN and other news sources reporting the story refer to the rapidly developing military group as a “decapitation unit,” no official South Korean sources can be quoted referring to it as such. It does appear, however, that the unit will be tasked with targeting North Korea’s war time command structure, which would indicate they are indeed planning for the assassination of the state leader. This unit will likely be composed of members of South Korea’s Army Special Warfare Command (SWC), already tasked with guerrilla warfare and counterterrorism. If the term “decapitation” actually came from CNN’s anonymous source, it is significantly more likely that it was intended as a metaphor for removing the head of the North Korean government and military as pertains to its command structure, rather than Kim Jong-un’s actual head.

But then, even publicly announcing such a plan is out of the ordinary.

Contrary to what many may believe, the assassination of world leaders is not expressively forbidden by the Geneva Convention during a time of war, and years of fighting terrorist organizations whose leaders cannot be considered “heads of state” have muddied the waters around the legality of such targeted actions. In effect, South Korea’s decision to form an elite “assassination squad” isn’t illegal, nor is it really even in violation of the United States’—the country’s most valuable ally—laws regarding such military actions.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed an executive order in response to public disclosure of CIA plans to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro, banning U.S. intelligence officials from participating in “political assassination.” This is the only American law pertaining to such an action, and even it has been bent by subsequent legislation, such as a congressional resolution passed in 2001 in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks.

The “Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists” grants the president of the United States the right to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those who helped commit terrorist attacks against our country and its allies. This legislation has become the backbone of numerous operations targeting leaders of nations and terror groups seen as dangerous enemies of the United States.

In short, no international or allied legislation forbids South Korea from building an entire army with the sole intention of assassinating North Korea’s leader. So if such a special forces group is considered fair play, why don’t we see this sort of thing more often?

North vs South: Korean Special Forces

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Likely because most governments just don’t talk about it.

Israel’s national intelligence agency, Mossad, has used assassination as a means of national defense for years. In fact, on Wednesday of this weekLebanese President Michel Aoun accused Israel’s Mossad of being behind the fatal shooting of Lebanese businessman Amine Bakri last Sunday. This was the second accusation in just a few weeks levied against Mossad for killing people believed to be tied to Hamas’ drone programs. That isn’t to say that Israel is the only nation that uses targeted killing as a military tool. Even the killing of Osama bin Laden was side-eyed by some in the international community as an assassination, rather than the pursuit of an international fugitive.

The problem with the assassination of a nation’s leader, however, is that it can be extremely difficult to predict how the nation will react both internally and externally. President Barack Obama made headlines last year when he called the U.S. government’s failure to plan for the aftermath of military intervention in Libya, which led to the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, his “worst mistake” in office. The nation has since spiraled into turmoil, with ISIS-affiliated groups gaining a foothold in the country.

“That’s a lesson I now apply when we’re asked to intervene militarily. Do we have a plan for the day after?” Obama said in an interview with the BBC last April.

However dangerous a nation’s leader may be, they are often a known quantity. “The devil you know,” so to speak. Removing that leader without a formidable organization in place to take control of the nation could result in an even less stable dictator at the helm. Imagine someone even more volatile than Kim Jong-un at the head of North Korea’s large, if technologically limited, military force. Kim Jong-un may talk a whole lot of trash at the international dinner table, but for the most part, that’s all he does. The winner of an internal North Korean power grab could easily be the most brutal and extreme of opportunists: someone who actually wants the type of war North Korea’s current leader simply funds fan fiction about in the nation’s state-run media.

Of course, CNN’s source did specify that South Korea’s “decapitation squad” would only be used in the event of war with their neighbor to the north, instead of as a preventative measure or means by which to enforce international policy. In such an event, the world’s worst fears about Kim Jong-un may already have been realized, and the “devil we know” may truly be a worst-case scenario.

On the first of the new year, Kim Jong-un announced that his nation anticipates testing of their first intercontinental ballistic missile by the end of the year, and a recent North Korean defector confirmed that he believes North Korea’s nuclear missile program is headed for speedy completion. As such, South Korea’s anti-Kim special forces team has also been fast-tracked. Initially planned to be ready for deployment in 2019, CNN’s source now suggests that they will be ready for action at some point this year. It is worth noting that American intelligence analysts believe, although North Korea’s ICBM program may be moving forward, the nation currently lacks the technological capability of arming such a missile with a nuclear warhead—at least for now.

South Korea’s anonymous defense ministry official likely didn’t “leak” this story—it was almost certainly an intentional move intended to let their aggressive northern neighbors know that, while South Korea and its American ally stand ready to take military action against the nation of North Korea, the South intends to take such a fight to Kim Jong-un directly, and possibly in a very personal manner. After all, the “chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea” has made it clear he suffers no compunction about starving and enslaving his own people. Perhaps threatening his head could make him think twice about provoking war with South Korea and the West.

Korean Special Forces: North vs South

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Either that, or South Korea, currently embroiled in their own internal political strife, wants to make sure Kim Jong-un doesn’t see this as an opportunity to end the armistice between nations that put their war on hold in 1953 and re-unify the two Koreas under Kim’s reign.

South Korea seems to be emphasizing that, while there is currently a dramatic political upheaval going on within their nation, it has not compromised their ability to conduct offensive and defensive operations in the pursuit of their own best interests, and tact be damned, they’re calling Kim’s bluff.  “Come after us, and we’ll come after your head.”

Featured image courtesy of Reuters