Now that North Korea is unleashing increasingly hostile threats toward its adversaries, a review of Pyongyang’s war capabilities is more pertinent. Over the summer, the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong Un, carried out various provocations, including missile launches, civil defense drills, and direct threats of nuclear warfare.
In fact, Pyongyang recently ordered its military to ramp up “offensive war” preparations in light of the growing tensions between the country, the U.S., and DPRK’s other regional enemies. If war did break out, how equipped would North Korea’s special forces really be?
How Big are North Korea’s Special Forces?
Experts estimate that more than 200,000 soldiers make up the Korean People’s Army Special Operation Force. Comprised of specially trained elite military units, these soldiers are prepared to perform a variety of operations for Pyongyang, including in the military, political, and psychological arenas.
The SOF is also spread out in various infantry and sniper brigades distributed throughout North Korea’s Army, Air Force, Navy and Reconnaissance General Bureau. Roughly 150,000 of Pyongyang’s SOF belong to light infantry units and three brigades are special-purpose airborne infantry.
Industry experts believe Pyongyang has eight sniper brigades, which perform similar functions to the U.S. Army Rangers, Special Forces, and Navy SEALs.
In addition to its SOF, North Korea has one of the world’s largest armies, consisting of roughly 1.3 million soldiers. While Pyongyang relies heavily on its large special forces organization, the country lacks a sophisticated arsenal of weaponry. A large component of Pyongyang’s military stockpile dates back to the Soviet Union. Prior to the Korean War, the USSR supplied KPA with more than 200 modern tanks, including the T-34. Following the war in the 1970s, the KPA received more than 1,000 Soviet T-55 or Chinese-variant Type 59 main battle tanks (MBTs). North Korea also procured and updated T-62s, which its indigenous Chonma-ho MBT was largely derived from.
Pyongyang Still Relies on Some Soviet-Era Military Equipment
While Pyongyang’s MBT arsenal may not suffice against more modern counterparts, its stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction would likely be deployed by the SOF during times of war.
Analysts estimate that North Korea possesses somewhere between 2,500-5,000 tons of chemical weapons, in addition to a host of biological weapons like anthrax, smallpox, and cholera.
In terms of its nuclear prowess, North Korea has a worrying arsenal. Last year, a RAND Corporation report projected that Pyongyang could possess more than 200 nuclear weapons by 2027.
Back in 2006, the North Korean government conducted its first nuclear test. In 2017, the DPRK carried out its latest test involving a thermonuclear weapon, which yielded a force more than six times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima during the Second World War.
An earlier RAND report also found that Pyongyang has approximately 6,000 artillery systems within range of Seoul and other South Korean population centers. If each artillery system was deployed in war and used to target civilians, more than 10,000 people could die within an hour. “Even brief, narrowly tailored attacks could destroy key industrial facilities and seriously harm the South Korean economy,” analysts detailed.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.
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