27 May 2018

Best Of: How U.S., South Korean Special Ops Would Fight in a New Korean War


The situation between the US and North Korea remains tenuous and characterized by uncertainty. North Korea’s cancellation of the upcoming summit with South Korea over the recent US/South Korean joint military exercises underscores the fragile nature of the proposed talks between the two countries. While the United States Department of State continues to prepare for the June 12 meeting between the US and North Korea, President Trump, speaking to reporters on Tuesday in the Oval Office said the summit “may not work out”. As recently as March 2018, Vice President Pence stated that “all options on the table”. Among those options are of course the US Military, including Special Operations Forces, who would no doubt play a critical role in any US Military involvement on the Korean Peninsula.

Last June The Cipher Brief spoke with Retired Special Forces Colonel David Maxwell, who shared his perspective on how US and South Korean Special Operations Forces would potentially partner in support of combined efforts in the region, a combination that he says would provide a “powerful capability”.

Tensions are rising on the Korean Peninsula. There is fear that the Korean War could restart, since there has only been a temporary suspension of hostilities since the 1953 Armistice. Although this fear is not new and we have experienced high tensions many times over the years, given the global security situation, with two new administrations in Washington and Seoul and the uncertainty of Kim Jong-un’s future actions, some fear that the chances for some form of conflict are greater than ever. There is great focus on North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, continuing North Korean provocations to gain political and economic concessions, and the potential for a conventional war. But there is little focus on the combined special operations forces of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the U.S., except for occasional rhetoric.

There were a number of ad hoc special operations units led by the U.S. during the Korean War. They went by such names as the UN Partisan Infantry Korea, the 8240th Army Unit, the White Tigers, the Combined Command Reconnaissance Activities Korea, and Joint Advisory Commission Korea. The combined special operations capability today has built on this history and has evolved to a quite capable force, the Combined Unconventional Warfare Task Force, and it will provide critical support to the Commander of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (ROK/US CFC).

There are two important points to keep in mind about special operations forces (SOF) in Korea. First is that all the legislated U.S. SOF activities specified in U.S. Code will be conducted during conflict. Although there is focus on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) since the transfer of the counter-WMD mission from U.S. Strategic Command to U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in 2016, there are many more SOF requirements to support the ROK/US CFC.

The second point is that ROK special operations forces are among the most capable forces with which the U.S. partners. Although they are not the same as U.S. SOF, they share a long history of training and working together not only in Korea but also in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even in places such as the Horn of Africa with ROK Navy SEALs supporting anti-piracy operations. The combination of ROK and U.S. SOF provide a powerful capability to the Commander of ROK/US CFC.

To provide context for the type of operations SOF will conduct it is important to understand the “Big 5” of the Korean strategic challenges: 

War – The Alliance must deter, and if attacked, defend, fight, and win. 
Regime Collapse – The Alliance must prepare for this real possibility and understand it could lead to war, and both war and regime collapse could result in resistance to unification within the north. 
Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity (gulags, external forced labor, etc.) – The Alliance must focus on this as it is a threat to the Kim family regime and undermines domestic legitimacy – and it is a moral imperative. 
Asymmetric threats (i.e., provocations, nuclear program, missile, cyber, and SOF) and global illicit activities. 
Unification – the biggest challenge and the solution. 

From this context we need to keep in mind this bottom line: The only way we are going to see an end to the nuclear program and threats and to the crimes against humanity being committed against the Korean people living in the north by the mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim family regime is through achievement of unification and the establishment of a United Republic of Korea that is secure and stable, non-nuclear, economically vibrant, and unified under a liberal constitutional form of government determined by the Korean people.

The question is how to achieve the acceptable, durable political arrangement outlined above? The ROK will lead this effort to unify its nation, the U.S. as its blood ally will assist, and ROK and U.S. SOF will play a supporting role to the Commander of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command and their respective governments. Here are four possible scenarios that could be executed through, by, and with combined special operations forces.

By all press accounts, one of the top priorities for the U.S. will be counter-WMD. Special operations forces, with new responsibility for this mission, will employ their capabilities against WMD targets to prevent use and proliferation outside the peninsula. However, SOF does not possess the organic capabilities for the entire counter-WMD mission and therefore will have to orchestrate and integrate the capabilities of other functional combatant commands, the intelligence community, as well as combined conventional force capabilities. U.S. Special Operations Command can build on the global counterterrorism synchronization processes it has developed since 9-11 and apply it to the counter-WMD problem in Korea. And while the focus is on nuclear and other WMD components, one of the effective SOF capabilities that can be applied is the capture or neutralization of the supporting human infrastructure to ensure scientists and intellectual capital are not allowed to leave the peninsula.

The North Korean global illicit activities network operated by the North Korea Reconnaissance General Bureau and Department (or Office or Room) 39 must be addressed. Again, SOF can capitalize on the synchronization methods it has perfected for the counterterrorism mission. In SOF terms, it “takes a network to defeat a network,” and the North Korean global illicit activities network must be identified, exploited where possible, and eventually defeated. An effective SOF, intelligence community, diplomatic, and law enforcement partnership will provide strategic options to the alliance. For example, if the ROK and U.S. governments want to execute a strategic strangulation campaign to exert crushing pressure on the Kim family regime to influence its behavior or incite opposition, this network will have to be interdicted.

Special operations forces can develop methods to nurture and support internal resistance to influence the emergence of alternative leadership as well as prepare segments of the population for unification. While the application of traditional unconventional warfare methods with U.S. boots on the ground is not necessarily feasible early on, the application of modern unconventional warfare and cyber-enabled special warfare can prepare the environment for successful operations across the spectrum of instability and conflict in north Korea.

Finally, it should be remembered that SOF rests on the foundation of psychological warfare. The development of a ROK/U.S. combined whole of government information and influence activities campaign supported by SOF psychological operations forces is necessary to target the regime elite, second tier leaders, and the population to psychologically prepare them for what comes next: war, regime collapse, and ultimately unification.

In conclusion, we need the development of a holistic alliance strategy for North Korea as part of the strategies of both the new U.S. and ROK administrations. We cannot have policy and strategy focus on a single North Korean threat but instead, must develop policy and strategy that will ultimately solve the “Korea Question” (derived from the 1953 Armistice that recognized the only solution on the Korean peninsula was through unification and resolution of the “Korea Question”). ROK and U.S. special operations forces must play an early and active role in supporting a new alliance strategy.

David Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel.

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