Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ask a Korean! News: North Korean Special Forces

Here is a translation of an interesting/terrifying news story about North Korean Special Forces.

Mr. Im Cheon-Yong (45) was a captain of North Korean Special Forces. He is relatively short -- not quite 170 cm [TK: 5' 7"] -- but had unusually large fists, reminiscent of a cartoon character. The fact that this reporter met an officer of North Korean military's special combat unit became even more real after he explained, "I practiced punching several thousand times a day." His handshake was firm and heavy.

Mr. Im spent 16 years at the assassination brigade of the "Storm Corps," headquartered in Deokcheon, Pyeong'annam-do. Each corps of North Korean military contains a special combat brigade, but Storm Corps is not a brigade under another corps. It is a special combat corps, comprised of elite members of the special forces.

Speaking of the size of North Korea's special forces, Mr. Im said, "each corps has one brigade, sometimes two. Each brigade has about 6000 to 8000 men, but the numbers vary," and said, "it's hard to be precise, but it is a sizable number." He added, "Other than Storm Corps, there are other special combat troops such as 4.25 Training Camp, 8.15 Training Camp, 108 Training Camp."

The training for special combat as told by Mr. Im was harsh as expected, and some parts beyond imagination. The training begins on 5 a.m. The fundamental of the training is to turn the entire body into steely firmness, and the basic part is training the fist.

Mr. Im said, "You would wrap a tree trunk with ropes, and keep punching it. You throw 5000 punches day and night -- do that for a month, the inside of your fist swells up until you can barely curl your fingers." He added, "Then you open a tin can and set it up on a stand. You keep punching the sharp part. When your hand turns into mush with blood and pus, you start punching a pile of salt. Repeat it, and your hands become like a stone." Mr. Im explained, "You punch the salt so that the salt would prevent the hand from rotting away with the blood." According to Mr. Im, with the hand trained like this "you can easily break 20 sheets of cement blocks, and you can kill a person with three punches." His hands would naturally make a fist throughout the interview. This reporter had to respectfully ask that he unclench his fist during the interview.

The way to train shoulder and arm muscles was also unique. Mr. Im said, "You would take off your top, line up, put your hands on the shoulder of the person in front of you and put your head down. And then a car would drive on top of the outstretched arms." He explained, "The car goes fast enough not to break your arms, but if you don't concentrate your shoulder would be destroyed."

In a martial art called "Gyeok-sul," the special forces train by sparring each other. Mr. Im said, "Kim Il-Sung used to say he wanted a warrior who can defeat a hundred, but honestly that's not possible. But we get trained enough to fight ten men without guns."

In the winter, according to Mr. Im, the special forces are thrown into the sea around 4 km [TK: 2.5 miles] away. Mr. Im said, "The ocean temperature is about negative 30-40 degrees in North Korea in the middle of winter," and said "The salt water feels like blades; the capillaries all over your body burst out, and some people just die there." He added, "It used to be just throwing daggers at the target, shooting guns and punching, but nowadays we receive a lot of training on driving tanks and armored vehicles as well."

According to Mr. Im, the winter training begins on December 1 to mid-April, and the summer training goes from late July to late September. The remainder is spent preparing for the training. October and November are particularly busy, as the troops procure firewood and food to stave over the winter.

Mr. Im said North Korean regime focused on the special combat brigades, providing them food and continuing the training even during the March of Struggles in the mid- to late 1990s. But he explains that recently, "The food situation is terrible, such that even special combat brigades get no more than porridge."

Each company of the Storm Corps is assigned to a major city in South Korea as a terrorism target. The target for Mr. Im's company was Chungju, Chungcheongbuk-do. As Mr. Im belonged to the assassination brigade, his mission was to assassinate the mayor of Chungju. The other members of the company had such missions as overtaking the broadcasting stations, gassing major locations and demolishing buildings. According to Mr. Im, a special combat company is divided into a regular patrolling brigade and assassination brigade. Patrolling brigade takes relatively light missions like building demolition or reconnaissance, while the assassination brigade takes on missions of higher difficulty such as kidnap/assassination of important persons or releasing toxic gas.

Mr. Im said, "But assassination was not tasked to just me -- there would be double, triple layers in case of failure. For major personnel, there are at least three squads." He said, "For example, if the mayor is a conservative while the deputy mayor is a leftist, the mission would be to assassinate only the mayor so that the politics would favor North Korea." According to Mr. Im, "Until 1990s, the targets were military personnel like Jeong Ho-Yong (former Minister of Defense) or Park Hee-Do (former chief of the army)," and said, "until early 2000s, there were a lot of major officers of the [TK: conservative] Grand National Party on the target list. Especially Lee Hoi-Chang (head of the Jayou Party) was a must-kill target."

One would enter the special combat corps around ages 16 and 17. After basic training, unlike regular soldiers who begin as a private, special combat corps skip four ranks to begin as second lieutenants. Assassination brigade would skip five ranks to begin as first lieutenants. Only those from the favored caste could enlist; Mr. Im said he could join because he belonged to the "impoverished peasant" class.

Mr. Im declined to explain why he defected, saying "my family and friends remaining in North Korea would suffer." Mr. Im got rid of his home phone as he continued to receive threatening phone calls since he defected. Mr. Im said, "The phone calls would go something like, 'Are you still doing well?'" and added, "I don't particularly care, since I receive police protection."

As to the possibility of an attack by North Korean special forces, Mr. Im said, "During the Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun administration, North Korea had no reason to threaten with special forces since it managed the relationship well and got money out of it," and said, "But now that South Korean government's stance is hawkish and not rattled by the attacks on Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do, they have to be preparing."

Mr. Im pointed underground tunnels as a major route for special forces' infiltration, and worried that "It will be a significant problem for South Korea's security." He said, "There are a lot of tunnels especially around Cheolwon, and they are hard to find because the exits are usually deep in the mountains," and said, "It takes about 48 hours to come from North Korea to the South, then you would walk or take a bicycle to the point where you can use the public transportation. Then you would head to the city. There is no good way to stop this, so even as we speak there is a significant number of special forces infiltrated into South Korea."

“北 특수부대원들 지금도 땅굴로 남한 침투” [Dong-A Ilbo]

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  1. Both fascinating and unnerving. I wonder if the South reports tunnel finds these days. On one level, it also makes me hope the army starves. I am not a big LMB supporter, but it's hard for me to see another sunshine policy as worthwhile as it seemed to be used for sucking up, instead of leverage. I could be wrong. Do the Dems. still argue in favour of sending aid in post-Cheonan Korea?

  2. What a remarkable waste incredible willpower and human potential.

  3. Wow! This sounds like it could've come from a spy drama.
    I saw a documentary about a North Korean defector who said they were trained to learn how to kill people. The defector then said, it's pretty easy to kill a person, they're many ways to do it. Scary indeed.
    And I would agree with Jim, what a waste of willpower and potential.

  4. So after they kill the mayor then what? Do they really think the "leftist" mayor will favor North Korea? They're delusional.

  5. All I got to say is, "One shot, one kill."

  6. Does it trivialize his training to say that I can name about ten people in my immediate circle of friends who would pay $49.95 on pay-per-view to watch him clean the clock of Mike Tyson?

    Seriously, if I were in charge of the DPRK's sports programmes, I'd give up on the World Cup and go for the middleweight title.

  7. 'In the winter, according to Mr. Im, the special forces are thrown into the sea around 4 km [TK: 2.5 miles] away. Mr. Im said, "The ocean temperature is about negative 30-40 degrees in North Korea in the middle of winter,"'

    Negative 30-40?! They'd be ice skating, not swimming. Even 40 degrees farenheit is unbelievable, however: you'd only survive 30 minutes in water that cold.

  8. Interesting but, after receiving the training sounds like he made the right decision to escape North Korea. What would be more interesting is how he escaped, and if he used his special techniques doing it.

  9. "you'd only survive 30 minutes in water that cold."

    WRONG. You survive like three to four minutes in water of about 5 °C .. that's it. 30° C minus, you would experiecne a total body shock within 1 minute and lose consciousness immediately. be dead very quickly.


  10. jai,

    You can see the pic of the guy on the original article.

  11. As you may have noticed, The Economist has linked you. : )

  12. Yup, the Korean did notice. Thanks!

  13. As a side note, the North's strategy is not to simply assassinate the conservatives and then hope South Korea magically gives up. The strategy is to launch a massive artillery bombardment followed by frontal assault with armored units. Concurrently or just prior to the assault important "tough on DPRK" figures would be assassinated and major infrastructure destroyed, demoralizing the South's populace and leaving them with leaders potentially more interested in capitulating than fighting.

    The South would probably win any extended war but the North has more than enough firepower to force the South to give up quickly when combined with widespread sabotage and terror, especially if the United States isn't interested in intervening.



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