Lee Jung-hoon/Yonhap/AP
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.

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.

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.

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.

Somehow North Korea has increased the number of Storm Tigers from 3,900 to 4,100 in just two years, according to the white paper, even though North Korea has no major motor vehicle plants capable of producing civilian vehicles in large quantities.

Just as disturbing, according to the white paper, North Korea’s 170-millimeter cannon and 240-millimeter rocket launchers are within easy range of Seoul, 30 miles south of the line at the closest point. The threat of “massive surprise bombardment,” as the white paper puts it, is one reason why South Korean forces have held back on striking targets inside North Korea in reprisals for surprise attacks such as that on Yeonpyeong Island and also on the navy corvette the Cheonan, sunk by a torpedo fired by a midget submarine in March with a loss of 46 lives.

Starving soldiers

The elite status of North Korea’s special forces, however, comes with a downside for the remaining 1 million North Korean troops.

“A lot of soldiers are starving,” says Ha Tae-keung, president of Open Radio for North Korea, which gets news material from contacts inside North Korea and broadcasts by short-wave into the North. “Some of them are robbing civilians and taking bribes.”

Beside patrolling above the demilitarized zone, the North’s special forces train for commando-style raids at targets across the line or on the five South Korean islands in the Yellow Sea within several miles of the North Korean coastline. They also control North Korea’s array of short-, medium-, and long-range missiles and are responsible for defending the North’s nuclear complex at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, and nuclear facilities elsewhere.

The North’s special forces “are doing amphibious operations against the islands and also can go into Incheon,” the major port west of Seoul, says Prof. Kim. “The white paper is saying South Korea needs to pay more attention to their special forces.”

Prof. Kim credits President Lee with expressing the South’s willingness to participate in six-party talks hosted by China on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, while strengthening South Korean forces. The South has far fewer troops, about 650,000, but they’re believed to be considerably better equipped.

Mr. Lee “is emphasizing North Korea as an entity for dialogue and also as an entity for pressure,” says Prof. Kim. “Our president is trying to give the impression South Korea is not denying the need for dialogue, but we need to come up with meaningful results.”

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