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White Tigers and Black Panthers: South Korean Special Forces

By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2021

“Approach like a ghost, strike like thunder, vanish like smoke.”

— Motto of the South Korean Special Forces.

The brutal Korean War of 1950 to 1953 resulted in a signed armistice, essentially just a truce or an agreement to stop fighting, but there was never an official peace treaty, so North and South Korea are technically still at war, even 68 years later.

The paranoid, belligerent, totalitarian, communist government of North Korea has truly embraced this unfortunate technicality, advocating a formal policy of songun, or “military-first,” with the fourth-largest army in the world, at 1.21 million people, and literally 37 percent of the total population comprised of active military, reservists, or paramilitary forces totaling 9.5 million personnel. They also possess nuclear weapons.

The (North) Korean People’s Army Special Operations Force (KPA-SOF), founded in 1968, has nearly 200,000 personnel, including reconnaissance brigades (also called “sniper brigades”), light infantry battalions, paratroopers, and naval commandos (nicknamed “Lightning Commandos.”) They’re supported by 300 antiquated (some would politely say “vintage”), dark-green, Antonov An-2 Colt biplanes, or Shijiazhuang Y-5s, a direct, Chinese copy, in six regiments.

These small, single-engine, propeller-driven aircraft are already quite stealthy, but North Korea has replaced many of the aluminum surfaces with canvas or fabric, and installed four-blade, wooden propellers instead of metal ones, to further reduce their radar signatures. Some are armed with unguided rockets or small bombs. The most-common, An-2TD or Y-5B(T) models can each carry a dozen fully-equipped paratroopers, and they are meticulously well-maintained, in a very high state of readiness. In 2015, they conducted, large-scale, parachuting exercises involving 15,000 commandos at one time.

Further supporting the communist, KPA-SOF are 84 illegally-acquired (from West German arms-export firm Delta-Avia Fluggerate in 1984), MD-500D/E scout helicopters, at least 60 of which have been converted into gunships, with Type 82 7.62mm or DShK .50-caliber machine guns and Susong-Po (AT-3 Sagger-C) anti-tank missiles. South Korea operates 257 of this same type of helicopter, the MD-500MD Defender II (known locally as the MD-520MK “Black Tiger”), with 207 designated for light attack, armed with M134D 7.62mm Gatling guns, and 50 carrying BGM-71F TOW anti-tank missiles, soon to be replaced by the South Korean-produced, AT-1K Raybolt imaging-infrared, guided missile.

North Korea also possesses 78 submarines, the third-largest fleet in the world, after the U.S. and China, including 40 Sang-O(“Shark”) coastal submarines, two Sang-O II/K-300 models, five Yugo-class, P-4 midget subs, and 10 Yono (“Salmon”) MS-29 mini-subs, all of which are modified for inserting special operations teams of two to 10 men. These small submarines routinely operate undetected by the South Korean armed forces approximately 70 percent of the time.

The North Koreans fully realize that much of their equipment is outdated, but they strongly believe that their sheer numbers will overwhelm the more technologically-advanced, better-trained, better-fed, South Korean military forces. This stunning example was permanently set for them when Chinese communist forces allied with North Korea launched massive, human-wave attacks against American and United Nations forces during the Korean War, for which North Korea openly and lavishly celebrates “Victory Day” every year on July 27th (the date of the signing of the armistice in 1953) with extravagant, military parades.

Opposing the massive, North Korean Army and KPA-SOF is the South Korean Army and the Republic of Korea Army Special Warfare Command (ROK-SWC, the “Black Berets”), established in 1958, with its headquarters currently at Icheon, which includes six Special Forces brigades and one overseas deployment group, totaling 10,000 men. Their units are the 1st Special Forces Brigade (Airborne) “Eagle,” the 3rd Special Forces Brigade (Airborne) “Flying Tiger,” the Overseas Deployment Group (Airborne) “Whole World” (formerly the 5th Special Mission Brigade [Airborne] “Black Dragon”), the 7th Special Forces Brigade (Airborne) “Pegasus,” the 9th Special Forces Brigade (Airborne) “Ghost,” and the 11th Special Forces Brigade (Airborne) “Golden Bat,” each with four battalions of elite soldiers. These units are tasked with special operations, direct action, guerilla warfare, special reconnaissance, and counterterrorism.

Each South Korean Special Forces brigade has approximately 600 men, typically operating in 10-man teams. They undergo specialized training for three months in weapons handling, parachuting, aerial infiltration, naval infiltration, mountaineering, survival skills, winter warfare, and martial arts, including Teukgong Moosool and Krav Maga, and must earn black belts in Tae Kwon Do. Some of the parachute training is conducted using British-manufactured, Lindstrand Technologies (Asia division) GA-025 Parachute Training Balloons (PTBs), which are quite economical (North Korean special forces utilize different balloons for part of their parachute training.) Their standard uniform, since 2010, is the “Granite B,” woodland-camouflage pattern, with black beret for all ROK-SWC units.

In addition, there’s the 13th Special Mission Brigade (Airborne) “Black Panther” (or 13th SMB), which was recently reorganized in late 2017 as the “Decapitation Unit” of 1,000 men for assassinating high-ranking, enemy officers and political leaders in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital city. This unit is equipped with long-range, sniper rifles and grenade launchers to accomplish their harrowing mission, and received extensive training from the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), better known as SEAL Team Six, the unit that killed al-Qa’ida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Finally, the 707th Special Mission Group (Airborne) “White Tiger” (or 707th SMG), founded in 1981 with its headquarters in Seongnam, is the ROK Army’s elite, counterterrorism (CT) and quick-reaction unit, specifically trained since 1984 by the U.S. Army’s Delta Force. It was formed after the infamous, Munich Olympic Massacre of 1972, and was fully operational in time for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

The 707th SMG is tasked with CT operations, hostage rescue, airborne assaults, direct action, close-quarters combat, special operations, high-value targets, unconventional warfare, close protection, and raiding operations. It consists of 200 men and women in two assault companies, and one all-female company, divided into 14-person operating teams, and all members are parachute-qualified and SCUBA-qualified.

Their selection process is extremely rigorous, with 90 percent of applicants eliminated within the first 10 days. All 707th SMG operators then receive six months of basic, infantry combat skills, and six months of special warfare training, including parachuting, SCUBA operations, and martial arts training.

The 707th SMG also owns and operates an elaborate, counterterrorism training center for the ROK-SWC, regularly hosts multi-national, CT training, and maintains a continual presence in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the “Akh Unit,” training Emirati military forces in special operations.

The ROK Navy Special Warfare Flotilla (alternately abbreviated ROKNSWF, ROK UDT/SEAL, NAVSPECWARFLOT, or simply WARFLOT), established at Jinhae in 1955, is the South Korean Navy’s special operations force, heavily trained and influenced by the U.S. Navy. Their main strike force is the 1st Battalion, consisting of the Special Warfare Squadron (Navy SEALs), Underwater Demolition Team (UDT), and Maritime Rescue/Counterterrorism Unit (CT/VBSS.) But there are also two support battalions, an explosive-ordnance disposal (EOD) battalion, a military intelligence battalion, and the Ship Salvage Unit (SSU), with three rescue operations teams.

ROK SEAL/UDT training is very similar to U.S. Navy SEAL training, with a completion rate of about 35 percent, and sometimes as low as 10 percent. Once fully-qualified, they operate in seven-man teams, tasked with special operations, special reconnaissance, direct action, counterterrorism, hostage rescue, underwater demolition, and EOD disposal. They wear camouflaged uniforms, including MultiCam patterns, and gray berets.

These commando teams were instrumental in the famous, September-to-November 1996, Gangneung submarine infiltration incident, in which a North Korean Sang-O coastal submarine landed a three-man, special operations, reconnaissance team on the eastern coast of South Korea to spy on nearby, naval installations. But the submarine ran aground, and could not be dislodged. This resulted in a 49-day-long manhunt for the 25 North Korean infiltrators, but only one was eventually captured alive. Another 11 men were executed by their own comrades for their mission failure, and 13 were killed by South Korean special forces.

Since 2009, ROK UDT/SEAL teams have formed the core of the Cheonghae anti-piracy task force deployed to Somalia. At 4:58 AM on January 22, 2011, 15 South Korean naval commandos boarded the chemical freighter Samho Jewelry, which had been seized by 13 pirates six days previously, with 21 South Korean, Indonesian, and Burmese (Myanmar) sailors held hostage aboard, in the Arabian Sea. During the swift and daring raid, eight pirates were killed and five were captured in what the South Korean president called “a perfect operation.” All 21 hostages were rescued, with just one of them, the ship’s captain, suffering a non-fatal, gunshot wound to the abdomen.

In addition, the ROK Marine Corps (ROKMC) consists of 29,000 men organized into two divisions and one brigade, but only the elite, Spartan 3000 force, established in 2016, in brigade strength, and the Special Reconnaissance Battalion, are considered to be special operations units. The assigned mission of Spartan 3000 is the “destruction of key, military facilities in the North’s rear during contingencies,” which sounds a lot like offensive operations around Pyongyang in wartime, and they will certainly assist the army’s 13th SMB “Decapitation Unit” in killing or capturing North Korean leaders in and around the capital city.

These special, ROK Marines wear green berets, and are supported by two Dokdo-class, helicopter-transport ships, each of which can carry up to 700 Marines and their gear, 10 trucks, six tanks, six amphibious assault vehicles, three artillery pieces, two hovercraft, and 10 UH-60P Black Hawk transport helicopters.

The ROK Air Force also provides special operations components, including the 6th Combat Control Team (CCT), the 6th Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) Group (with two squadrons), and the 255th Special Operations Squadron (255th SOS), all based at Seongnam, the home of the elite, 707th SMG. CSAR assets include three AS332L1 Super Puma helicopters, 10 HH-60P Black Hawks, six HH-47D Chinooks, and seven camouflaged, Russian-made, HH-32A (Ka-32A4 Helix-D) naval rescue helicopters, while the 255th SOS operates four dark-gray, MC-130KCombat Talon II specialized, infiltration/exfiltration, four-engine transports, converted from C-130H Hercules models.

Combat controllers assist the ROK Army and Navy with directing airstrikes from the ground, while pararescue jumpers (PJs) are the emergency medical technicians manning the CSAR helicopters. Modeled directly after their U.S. Air Force counterparts, the CCT teams wear scarlet berets, the PJs wear maroon berets, and they all have an extremely difficult qualification process, with only about five percent of applicants completing the full process.

In addition, the ROK Air Force operates 20 An-2 Colt biplanes (purchased from Poland and other Eastern European nations) with their Air Force Academy and 28th Flight Group at Seongmu, designating them the “L-2,” and using them primarily to train South Korean F-15KStrike Eagle and KF-16C/D Fighting Falcon jet fighter pilots for intercepting low-flying, North Korean An-2s and Y-5s.

ROK Navy and Air Force special operations units add another 10,000 men, bringing the total strength of South Korean Special Forces up to 20,000, yet they are still outnumbered by a staggering ratio of 10-to-one by the North Korean KPA-SOF. The South Koreans must depend very heavily on their qualitative and technological edge to overcome this huge disparity in manpower. South Korean Special Forces are equipped with the following weapons:

Assault Rifles: Daewoo/Dasan K1A carbine (but they call it a “submachine gun”) in 5.56mm, with 10.4-inch barrel; Daewoo/Dasan K2C carbine in 5.56mm, with 12-inch barrel and PVS-11Kred-dot sight or 4X scope; FN SCAR-L in 5.56mm (since late 2017) with 10-inch or 14-inch barrel; and Dasan K16 (DSAR15PC, very similar to the Colt M4 Commando) carbine in 5.56mm, with 11.5-inch barrel (to replace the K1A carbine by 2024, but before then with the 13th SMB and 707th SMG.) Some American-manufactured, Colt M4A1 carbines in 5.56mm and HK417s in 7.62mm NATO are also in use. South Korean Navy UDT/SEAL teams prefer the German-made, HK 416 carbine with 10.4-inch barrel, or SIG516 (now discontinued) in 5.56mm.

Submachine guns: Daewoo K7 SMG in 9mm, with 30- or 32-round magazine, and integral suppressor generating only 111.5 decibels is standard. Several versions of the Heckler and Koch MP5, both suppressed and unsuppressed, are also in service. The 707th SMG also uses the H&K MP7A1 in 4.6x30mm, and the Brügger and Thomet (Swiss) MP9-N in 9mm.

Pistols: Daewoo K5 in 9mm, with 4.1-inch barrel is standard-issue (generally similar to the SIG P226.) The 707th SMG also uses the H&K USP9 Tactical pistol in 9mm, the IWI (Israeli) Jericho 941F Tactical in 9mm, the Beretta 92FS/M9 in 9mm, and the H&K USP45 in .45 ACP, often with a suppressor. UDT/SEAL teams prefer the SIG Sauer P226 pistol, and have also been seen with Glock-17s or -19s in 9mm.

Sniper rifles: S&T Motiv K14 in 7.62mm NATO, with 24-inch barrel, bolt-action, five- or 10-round magazine, Schmidt and Bender PM II or Leupold Mk. 4 scope, Vortex-style flash hider, and available suppressor is the standard rifle. The 13th SMB and 707th SMG also employ the H&K MSG90 in 7.62mm NATO, the Steyr SSG 69 in 7.62mm, the SIG Sauer SSG 3000 in 7.62mm, the long-range, Accuracy International AWSM (Arctic-Warfare Super Magnum) in .338 Lapua Magnum, and the long-range, Accuracy International AW50F in .50 BMG. UDT/SEAL teams prefer the Knight’s Armament Corporation SR-25/Mk. 11 rifle in 7.62mm NATO, the Sako TRG M10 in .338 Lapua Magnum, and the Canadian-made, PGW Defense Technologies LRT-3 rifle in .50 BMG ($11k each.)

Machine guns: Daewoo/S&T Motiv K3 Para in 5.56mm, with 14.4-inch barrel and 200-round ammo belt in plastic container is standard, and very similar to the FN Minimi/M249 Para model.

Grenade launchers: The Daewoo K11 DAW (Dual-barrel, Airburst Weapon) combines a 5.56mm rifle with a 20x30mm grenade launcher (with five-round magazine and an effective range of 550 yards) and 12-inch barrel.

Combat knife: The 707th SMB carries the rugged, Glock FM78 Field Knife.

There are currently 23,468 U.S. troops stationed at 15 bases in South Korea, including three F-16CMFighting Falcon jet squadrons, and an A-10CWarthog ground-attack squadron, at Osan and Kunsan Air Bases. This sizeable American presence is a powerful, deterrent factor to prevent rash, offensive action by the North Koreans, who fully realize that any war against the South, especially a nuclear war, will invite immediate and massive retaliation in kind by U.S. forces.

This very strong alliance between the United States and South Korea, as well as their military, technological advantages, offsets much of the disproportionate, numerical advantage that North Korea holds in sheer manpower. In the event of a renewed war on the Korean Peninsula, South Korean Special Forces may be greatly outnumbered by their adversaries, but they will have the full support of modern, U.S. and ROK military might to enable them to perform their exceptionally-hazardous, assigned missions.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.

Photo is courtesy of Republic of Korea (ROK) Armed Forces.

 
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