North Korean adventures in unconventional warfare

The world continues to focus on North Korea's nuclear program and naval attacks on the South, as North Korea builds a special operations behemoth

By Jennifer L. Hesterman

On September 15, 1996, a North Korean Sang-O mini-submarine overloaded with 26 military infiltrators lingered off the coast of Gangneung, South Korea, about 74 miles south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). A team of three left the sub and went ashore to observe nearby naval installations. Upon their return two days later, the operatives attempted to swim out to the sub, but were deterred by large waves. In its attempts to collect the crew, the Sang-O ran aground and became disabled.

After a taxi driver spotted the operatives and the Sang-O, he informed authorities. The Republic of Korea (ROK) mobilized 40,000 soldiers in response, and a 49-day manhunt ensued. After days of violent confrontation, 13 operatives were killed in firefights and 11 operatives fought, but ultimately committed suicide to avoid capture. One inflitrator was captured and one escaped across the border. The captured man, Lee Kwang Soo, was allowed to stay in South Korea and assimilated peacefully with society. He recently made his first comments to the Press regarding the 1996 incident, and shed great light on the North Korean mini-sub program, capability, and goals.1

Nearly two years later, in June 1998, South Korea captured a Yeono minisub after it became entangled in South Korean fishing nets near Sokcho, just north of the Sang-O incident. After the sub was brought to shore, it was reported that the nine crew members aboard had committed suicide.

In March 2010 a Yeono mini-sub sank a South Korean ship carrying 104 crew members. The 1,200-ton ROKS Cheonan was operating off the west coast Of the peninsula, near an island southwest of the Northern Line Limit, the maritime DMZ. A torpedo launched from the sub apparently hit the hull of the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Investigators were able to raise the ship and recover a rocket motor from the torpedo and explosive residue from the charge. When presented with the evidence, the United Nations rebuked North Korea for the incident and demanded a confession and an apology. The North has yet to respond.

The infiltrators of the Korean Peoples Army (KPA) have other sea craft at their disposal as well. In December 1998 the South Korean navy fired on a semisubmersible high-speed boat off the far southern coast near Pusan. The boat was able to get away, however, the body of a North Korean diver was later recovered Near the site.

The modernization of the North Korean surface fleet is ongoing. ROK Defense Ministry sources announced the development of a stealthy North Korean boat that might approach a coastline undetected by modern surveillance and radar systems.
The armed vessel is reportedly 100 feet long, with radarabsorbing paint and faceted surfaces.2 In addition, some believe North Korean infiltrators employ specially designed high-speed boats resembling civilian fishing craft, and a small contingent of hovercraft.

North Korea reportedly maintains more than 30 of the largest mini-sub, the Sang-O, which accommodates 20 sailors. The smaller mini-sub, the Yeono, can hold nine crew members and passengers.

There are believed to be approximately 10 Yeonos in the inventory. Both platforms are capable of launching torpedoes without leaving a large sonar signature.


KPA infiltrators carried out several assassination attempts against the South Korean president on and off the peninsula. In January 1968 a 31-man team successfully crossed the DMZ to Seoul nearing the Blue House, home of then-South Korean President Park Chung-Hee. The infiltrators were dressed as South Korean soldiers and civilians; however, they were confronted by suspicious South Korean citizens who notified the police. A gun battle and chase north to the DMZ ensued. Twenty-eight infiltrators were killed, one was captured, and two were unaccounted for. 68 South Koreans were killed and 66 were wounded, the majority of whom were soldiers and police officers. Three American soldiers were also killed in the fight, and three others were wounded.

In October 1983 a KPA assassination team arrived in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar), and harbored at the North Korean ambassador’s complex.

They placed a bomb at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum, the location of a wreathlaying ceremony. The bomb exploded a few minutes before the arrival of then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, killing 17 senior South Korean officials and injuring 14 others.

The explosion also killed four Burmese nationals and wounded 32 others. Two North Korean operatives were arrested and tried in a Burma court. They provided confessions and were executed.


The North Koreans are masters at tunneling. The DMZ is 151 miles long and about half of the territory is mountainous. Plenty of fortifications, troops, mines, and other defensive measures are in place along the DMZ; therefore, the North has prepared approaches from underground. The first tunnels under the DMZ were discovered In the late 1970s. The largest was of great concern because it ended just a mile southwest of a US Army base. Reports estimate 30,000 armed men accompanied by light artillery could pass through this tunnel, which included an operational railroad track, every hour. Based on the testimony from North Korean defectors, some estimates allege that there could be at least 35 tunnels under the DMZ.3

Whether gaining access through tunnels, hiking the mountains, or swimming the Imjin River, which flows across the DMZ, infiltrators from the North have been discovered in South Korea on numerous occasions throughout the years. In the 1990s several of these incursions ended in gunfights. Three KPA soldiers wearing South Korean uniforms were killed in May 1992 in the border town of Cholwon by ROK army forces. In 1995 armed operatives were found and killed south of the DMZ in the Imjin River. The body of a KPA operative was found on a southern shore in July 1998, apparently equipped as an intelligence collector.


Although the KPA has a fleet of aircraft designed for troop movements, the job of infiltrating South Korea would likely be accomplished with the Russian Antonov AN-2. The AN-2 is a propeller-driven biplane that KPA special operations personnel reportedly use. It is a special, light-weight model with wings made from cloth and wood; thus, it provides a very low radar cross section. The AN-2 can transport 10 fully loaded passengers and serve as a platform for paratroopers. It is a short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft with range such that it can reach the southern part of the peninsula without refueling. These aircraft likely have South Korean markings in an attempt to make infiltration easier. It is estimated that there are 200 AN-2s in inventory dedicated to supporting special operations forces (SOF), but there are reports that the fleet was grounded in 2007 because of rising fuel costs in the country.4 Although there are no publicly documented instances of aerial incursions by these craft, it is worth noting that they play a role in SOF battle plans.


North Korea seems to be favoring two military angles: the use of shortand long-range missiles, and the KPA SOF. Analysts suggest that the special operations program has trained more than 30,000 members in the last few years, and now consists of approximately 121,500 soldiers. Under the leadership of the Training Unit Guidance Bureau, the SOF is organized into at least 22 light infantry-type brigades and seven independent, light infantry battalions. Embedded in the structure are airborne assault, amphibious, reconnaissance, and sniper units.5

The KPA SOF has five basic missions: conducting reconnaissance, performing combat operations in conjunction with conventional operations, establishing a second front in South Korea’s rear areas, countering ROK/US special operations Forces in North Korea’s rear area, and maintaining internal security.6 Strategic goals include disabling ROK and US command, control, communications, and intelligence; kidnapping/killing senior leaders of opposing forces; destroying sensitive facilities by disabling control towers at airfields and destroying POL (petroleum, oil and lubricant) supplies; and neutralizing enemy nuclear, chemical, or biological capabilities.

Analysts believe that during a conflict, KPA SOF would breach the DMZ en mass by sea, land, and air with the overarching goal of creating chaos. KPA SOF may work in small teams of three to five, and are often armed with knives, suppressed pistols, AK and AR style rifles, hand grenades, RPG type rocket launchers, and light mortars. Demonstrated tactics for infiltrating the South include wearing ROK and US uniforms to access military installations. Infiltrating Seoul in civilian clothes, and entering South Korea by commercial airliner from other countries. KPA SOF is one of the best-resourced military programs in North Korea, and its members are zealously loyal to their president.


Sixty years after the Korean conflict simmered down, the North and South remain at war. A peace accord was never signed. Tensions are high with the sinking of the Chenoan and the alarming nuclear capabilities of an inscrutable, provocative government. The growth of the KPA SOF during austere economic times may indicate a shift in ideology, from reliance on conventional forces to the asymmetric advantage offered by a light, stealthy, more highly skilled force.

As the world continues to focus on its nuclear program and naval attacks on the South, North Korea has slowly and deliberately built a special operations behemoth. Part of the KPA, this professional SOF is trained in unconventional tactics, can operate in harsh terrain, and has successfully penetrated the border numerous times in the last decade.


Ms. Hesterman is a retired US Air Force colonel and is currently an analyst for the MASY Group, and Vice President of Academic Research and Development for the 5th Generation Warfare Educational Institute. She is a professor of counterterrorism studies at American Military University, author of Transnational Crime and the Criminal-Terrorist Nexus, and authors the blog



4 Air Forces Monthly, December 2007 issue, p.27
5 Illustrated Directory of Special Forces , Ray Bonds and David Miller, 2003

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