In August 2017 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and many of the county's military leadership supervised special forces exercises supported by artillery. The drills involved a barrage on simulated enemy positions from the air and from artillery units followed by rapid landings of special forces personnel by sea and air to capture enemy positions and neutralise remaining hostile forces. North Korea's military often holds military exercises to demonstrate the country's readiness for war, and with the country having in the past clashed with its southern neighbour over control of a number of small islands over the peninsula's coasts such amphibious warfare drills were intended to send a strong signal to Seoul and its allies. The exercises were carried out amid the U.S.-South Korean joint Freedom Guardian military exercises taking place from August 21st to 31st. The North Korean military's new special forces uniforms and equipment, recently unveiled in a military parade on April 15th 2017, were seen already in use by several special forces units. This included combat armour, night vision optics and grenade launchers among other state of the art equipment.
North Korea's special forces remain one of its primary military assets, and are the largest special operations force in the world at 180,000 personnel. The units have shown themselves to be highly capable with elite training standards, and have demonstrated this during their limited combat deployments since the Korean War. The capabilities of these special forces were perhaps best demonstrated during the 1996 Gangneung submarine infiltration incident when three service members became stranded in South Korea. These personnel managed to evade South Korean search parties comprised of tens of thousands of personnel for a full 49 days. By the time two of them were finally found and eliminated they had killed twelve South Korean soldiers and caused twenty seven more military casualties. The remaining operative was never captured and is assumed to have successfully returned to North Korea. Should a war break out and North Korea be able to deploy its special forces in large numbers behind enemy lines, be they Japan, South Korea or Pacific nations hosting U.S. military forces, they will almost certainly wreak havoc in a way the country's missile and artillery forces could never achieve alone. The capabilities of these forces are set only to improve with time as new weapons and support systems are developed.
By testing the offensive capabilities of its special operations forces North Korea is signalling to its potential adversaries that should they attempt to initiate a war the country's retaliation will come in the form of not only missile strikes and artillery - but also of the deployment of 180,000 elite personnel capable of infiltration and sabotage. Should these units successfully manage to open up second fronts behind enemy lines, the result will be significant destruction and chaos which will significantly undermine the war efforts of North Korea's adversaries. Should North Korea's special forces be able to strike key civilian and military infrastructure, they could well have a significant impact on the outcome of a war on the Korean Peninsula and ultimately force the United States and their allies onto a defensive in a way not seen since the Vietcong's Tet Offensive in 1968. Indeed, considering that the first phase of the Tet offensive was carried out with just 80,000 regular Vietcong personnel, many of them ill trained conscripts, infiltration by 180,000 elite North Korean forces against the far more complex and vulnerable infrastructure of modern South Korea and Japan, relative to that of South Vietnam, would cause destruction on a scale orders of magnitude greater than the Tet offensive ever did.