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North Korea boosts tanks and special forces, says South Korea

South Korea says the buildup of special forces represents a shift in North Korea’s emphasis from all-out war to military provocation.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / December 30, 2010

A South Korean Army soldier mana a guard post near the Incheon Bridge in Incheon, South Korea, Monday. South Korea says North Korea has been building up their special forces; a move that signals a shift in emphasis from all-out war to military provocation.

Lee Jung-hoon/Yonhap/AP

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Seoul, South Korea

North Korea is building up the elite special forces used for quick strikes against South Korea and supporting the North’s nuclear and missile programs, Seoul's defense ministry said Wednesday.

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The defense ministry, in a white paper that comes out every two years, said North Korean special forces have grown since 2008 from 180,000 to 200,000 troops – a privileged corps within the North’s military establishment of nearly 1.2 million troops.

The buildup of special forces represents a shift from the North’s previous emphasis “on all-out war in terms of military doctrine,” says Kim Sung-han, professor of international relations at Korea University. “Now they are shifting to military provocations. To make surprise attacks successful, you have to improve your special forces.”

Most of the North’s special forces are near the demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since the Korean War, forming a front line that represents a constant threat against the South. Although a major conflict appears unlikely, analysts credit them with the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea on Nov. 23, killing two South Korean marines and forcing much soul-searching among South Korean leaders about the South’s defenses.

Parsing words about the enemy

Despite the sense of crisis engendered by the Yeonpyeong attack, the paper avoids describing North Korea as the South’s “ main enemy,” a term that was dropped a decade ago while the South was pursuing reconciliation. The paper does, however, describe the North Korean regime and military establishment as “the enemy.”

That’s “toned down from before,” he says. Indeed, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak is following “a dual-track approach” of openness to negotiations.

The white paper, however, makes clear the fear of more surprise attacks.

South Korea’s Deputy Defense Minister Chang Kwang-il cited the North’s special forces as critical to its “asymmetric warfare capabilities” – on a steady rise since 2008.

Intrinsic in strengthening the special forces are tanks and artillery pieces that North Korean factories are able to produce despite the breakdown of much of the economy, the collapse of most industries and acute shortages of power.

Increase in the number of tanks

The white paper confirms development of a new and distinctive North Korean tank, the Storm Tiger, Pokpung-ho in Korean. The body of the tank is modeled after the Russian T-72, and it’s got a 125-millimeter cannon, copied from the Soviet T50, both of which were shipped to North Korea when Moscow and Pyongyang were on close terms before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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