March 23, 2017:
In early 2017 two North Koreans were captured in northeast China and returned to North Korea. This incident didn’t show up in Chinese or North Korean media but local Chinese (especially those who are ethnic Koreans) quickly figured out what was going on and the news quickly got out. The two North Korean “defectors” where not your usual desperate people risking their lives to escape the failing North Korean police state. These two were a brother and sister and it was the brother that the secret police in both countries were after. That’s because the brother had recently been expelled from a university in North Korea that specializes in training special operations personnel for missions in South Korea. Getting into that particular university program is a big deal in North Korea as it means you are assured a comfortable life (by North Korean standards) which a small risk of being sent on a combat mission to South Korea. This university course mainly trains North Koreans to be spies in South Korea and that’s where the brother ran into problems with the North Korean secret police who discovered that he actually had family in South Korea. Now the brother might not even have known he had kin down there but he immediately became ineligible for the job he was training for. He wasn’t arrested in North Korea but was placed under constant surveillance and in North Korea that is never a good sign. The brother apparently feared the worst and convinced his younger sister to accompany him as he sought to escape North Korea and make it to South Korea. By himself the brother might have made it because he had already had a lot of physical and tactical training on how to evade detection and capture in a foreign country. But the brother knew that if he went by himself his sister would be arrested and killed (executed after a propaganda trial or slowly after years of privation in a labor camp.) The pair made it to China but the North Korean secret police quickly prepared a wanted poster for their Chinese counterparts that showed pictures of the brother and described his skills. The sister was mentioned as were code words indicating a reward would be paid for the capture (preferably) or death (if that was the only option) of the brother. Since the brother had a high security clearance and knowledge of secret capabilities of North Korean intelligence and commando operations this was considered a high priority case on both sides of the border. So important that the Chinese allowed the North Koreans to send a special team of agents to China to assist in the search. All this effort (and apparently offers of rewards for useful tips) soon led to the capture of the pair and their prompt return to North Korea.
What was most disturbing about this incident was that it indicated how badly conditions had become within the North Korea secret police and special operations forces. It was already known that corruption was increasingly common in the secret police and morale and capabilities were declining within the special operations forces.
Over the last decade many kinds of training for North Korean special operations personnel had been cut way back. If it requires fuel, ammo or any other resource that training is unlikely to happen. North Korea is increasingly so broke that even the military is forced to cope with major shortages. This has been going on, and getting worse each year since the 1990s when Russian aid in the form of cash, food, fuel and military gear was cut off. The commando forces were the last to feel the shortages. By 2008 there were clear signs that even the commando forces have had to make do without. Even so, the North Korean special operations troops are still a formidable force, at least on paper.
North Korea has long maintained elite commando forces, troops who were carefully selected, then paid, housed and fed better, and given access to better equipment. About 15 percent of the 1.2 million North Korean military personnel are in these elite units. Since North Korean conscripts serve for at least six years, there’s enough time to train even draftees to special operations levels of capabilities. Service in these units are sought after because not only do they mean better treatment while in the military but better career opportunities after military service. Most of these North Korea special operations troops are similar to U.S. rangers, marines, paratroopers or special reconnaissance troops (U.S. Marine Force Recon and army LURPS).
There are also some 30,000 snipers, organized into ten Sniper Brigades. This is a rather unique use of snipers, and given shortages of ammunition in the north, it's uncertain how well these troops, no matter how well selected, are at sniping. If you want to maintain your shooting skills, you have to fire thousands of rounds a year. The same applies for all elite troops, although a lot of the training just consists of physical conditioning and combat drills. For snipers, this consists practicing staying hidden. This can be accomplished, if you can keep the troops well fed and housed. This is no longer the case with many of the Special Forces, and morale is suffering.
At the apex of North Korean Special Forces there are about five thousand commando and U.S. Special Forces type troops. These are meant to get into South Korea and go after key targets and people. Many of these operators qualify for the university training course and these students are considered the elite. But the North Koreans have trained for half a century to do this and have not been able to actually put these troops to the test much. There have been thousands of small operations in the south during that time. In the 1960s there was a low level war going on, as the North Koreans sent dozens of small teams south each year. Over a hundred American troops were killed or wounded, and many more South Korean soldiers and police. Yet, the North Koreans had little success and cut back on these operations in the early 1970s and never revived that effort.
While the top special operations units are still relatively well cared for, more and more reports come out of the north about many less skilled special operations troops complaining about less, or at least lower quality, food and other problems (like less access to electricity year round, and heat during the Winter.) More of these troops are deserting and heading for China, where they can be more easily interviewed. Some have made it all the way to South Korea, where the extent of their numbers and preparations has pushed South Korean commanders to increase their security preparations, and train more troops to deal with all these commandos in war time.
While the North Korean special operations troops are grumbling about not getting all the training resources (ammo and fuel) they need, they remain a highly motivated and generally loyal force. The government uses these troops to insure the loyalty of the other 85 percent of the military, and more and more elite troops are being used to assist the secret police in going after dissidents and corrupt officials. This is probably hurting the North Korean special operations forces more than anything else. The troops are getting a close look at the corruption and contradictions in North Korea. The troops generally live in closed bases and don't get out much. But now that they do, they see a North Korea that is unpleasant, and not as swell as their commanders told them it was. It turns out those letters they were getting from home were not exaggerating how bad things were. And the trend has been down for so long, it's hard to assure the troops that there's any way up.