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North Korean Special Forces in Syria; A Look at Pyongyang’s Assistance to Damascus’ Counterinsurgency Operations

June 10th - 2018

Image Credit : KCNA

North Korea has long maintained close ties to the Syrian Arab Republic, and Pyongyang is arguably Damascus’ oldest and most reliable defence partner today. Korean Personnel have fought alongside their Syrian counterparts in all the country’s major wars since the 1970s, including the Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon War waged against neighbouring Israel and the current ongoing counterinsurgency against a number of Western supported Islamist militant groups. With Syria lacking a sizeable military industrial base of its own, North Korean assistance has played a key role in modernising the country’s Soviet era weapons systems, from armoured fighting vehicles and artillery to surface to air missile platforms. Pyongyang has also provided its ally with much of its ballistic missile arsenal, including Hwasong-5, Hwasong-6 and KN-02 Toksa platforms which are key to deterring attacks from neighbouring Israel - providing Syria with some form of parity against the larger and more numerous forces of its longstanding adversary.

With North Korean advisors having long been present in the Syrian military, playing a key role both in war and in peacetime, Korean assistance has been an invaluable asset to Damascus’ ongoing war effort today. North Korean support has been key to upgrading Syria’s surface to air missile network, with Russia refusing to provide more advanced long range missile systems and Iran incapable of doing so. This has played a key role in blunting air attacks on Syria both by Israel and by the Western bloc. The opportunity to asses the performance of heavily upgraded Soviet era air defences against the latest Western built weapons systems is also invaluable for Pyongyang. The Syrian government has on many occasions thanked North Korea for the extensive support given to its health sector since the outbreak of the war to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis there. Further still, a number of reports indicate that the Korean People’s Army (KPA/ North Korean military) has committed ground troops to the Syrian theatre to directly assist Damascus. Such a move would hardly be unprecedented, with Korean ground personnel having operated artillery during the Lebanon War and pilots having flown Soviet built fighter jets against the Israeli Air Force during the Yom Kippur War. With the threat to Syrian sovereignty far greater in the current conflict than it has ever been before, with a very real risk until September 2015 that Damascus would imminently fall to Islamic State forces while other major population centres were captured and held for years by other Al Qaeda aligned groups such as Al Nusra, it was inevitable that North Korea would deploy assets on a significant scale to protect its ally.

North Korean military assistance to Syria makes strategic sense from Pyongyang’s perspective, as not only was Damascus one of its foremost partners following the collapse of the Soviet Union and an ally the increasing isolated East Asian state can ill afford to lose, but preventing Syria’s fall also remains an effective means to deny the Western Bloc a key strategic victory in the Middle East. With the United States and its European allies perceiving continued threats to their dominance in the Middle Eastern theatre, in which Syria plays a central role alongside Iran, the Western powers can ill afford to fully divert their resources and attentions to the Asia Pacific region. This mirrors the Korean strategy of splitting the United States’ forces during the Vietnam War, when Pyongyang not only sent extensive military assistance to North Vietnam, but also committed combat personnel to the front. In an attempt to force the United States and its allies to split resources between two fronts, North Korea also precipitated a number of military provocations on the Korean Peninsula including downing American aircraft and sending infiltration teams into South Korean to start a second insurgency there similar to that in U.S. aligned South Vietnam. Their success in achieving this goal was limited, though their contribution to the war effort in Vietnam was invaluable. 

North Korean deployments to Syria have alongside military advisors and technicians also reportedly included advanced special forces units, one of Pyongyang’s most prized assets. The Korean People’s Army fields by far the most numerous special forces in the world, with approximately 180,000 serving personnel. The advanced capabilities and elite training standards of these units has been demonstrated during an encounter with the South Korean military in the 1996 Gangneung submarine infiltration incident, when three members of the North Korean special forces became stranded south of the 38th Parallel. These personnel managed to evade several thousand South Korean soldiers tasked with finding them for 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 - causing 39 military casualties in total. The remaining operative was never found, and is assumed to have successfully returned to North Korea.

With South Korea fielding one of the largest, most professional, highly trained and heavily armed ground forces in the world, and with North Korean special forces having been trained to operate behind enemy lines to great effect against even these elite adversaries, their potency against relatively ill trained and ragtag forces of Middle Eastern Islamist insurgents is likely to be truly lethal. In March 2016 representatives of the Western backed insurgent forces stated that North Korean military personnel had been deployed for combat operations in the country on Damascus’ behalf. The head of the High Negotiations Committee named “two North Korean units” which he described as “lethal” at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, and these Korean personnel have proven an invaluable asset to the counterinsurgency effort undertaken by Syrian government forces. Deploying special forces to Syria remains an effective means of contributing to Damascus’ war effort, and the latest in a long line of North Korean military interventions to support friendly states against Western aligned adversaries. With Islamist groups deploying some of the latest Western made weaponry, and European and U.S. special forces having been found to operate alongside a number of them in the field, combat in Syria is likely to provide the Korean military with invaluable experience on countering the latest Western arms and tactics - invaluable knowledge which can be passed onto KPA units at home in future. Experience in city fighting and capturing fortified enemy territory, operations which the KPA has seldom performed since the Korean War, is also highly invaluable. Considering the potency of North Korean’s special forces units, they may very well be the most dangerous and elite forces that Islamist insurgent groups such as Islamic State and Al Qaeda have yet to face on the battlefield.

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