This is a test. Do not remain in your bomb shelter. Please return to your living room or kitchen and consider this little thought experiment. We are not at war with North Korea. Not yet. Likely never. But here’s a suggestion, one you will find ridiculous. Just remember, it’s a thought experiment.
Punggye-ri is, by all appearances, North Korea’s nuclear testing site: a series of tunnels deep inside a mountain range in the NorthEast of the DPRK. There was a dramatic but mostly symbolic shutting down of the site just a few days ago, hours before President Trump pulled out of the Singapore Summit with Kim Jong-un. In front of a group of foreign journalists (but without any independent observers with expertise in nuclear testing sites), the North Koreans sealed the entrance to several (perhaps not all) tunnels with a dramatic series of explosions.
But while they blew it up real good, the interior of the tunnels, where the important testing facilities would be located, seem to remain intact. Also, the entrances could fairly easily be re-opened with hundreds of malnourished North Koreans working like slaves (actually working as slaves would be a better description because they would, as usual, be providing essentially slave labor) with pick axes and maybe a bulldozer or two.
But is the interior of those tunnels in working condition? Last fall, Chinese geologists reportedly claimed that a nuclear test in September (claimed to have been a hydrogen bomb by the DPRK) resulted in an earthquake, which may very well have rendered the facilities inoperable.
Here’s the thought experiment. What if that event had, in fact, been sabotaged by Special Operations Forces? Either South Korean or American? Or both?
No, this was almost certainly not the case. I get that. But consider this quote from the Cipher Brief by retired U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel David Maxwell:
There is a 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 the Joint Advisory Commission Korea. The combined special operations capability today has built on this history. It 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.
In other words, Special Ops will have a major role in any possible conflict on the Korean peninsula, and both the command structure and the relationship with South Korean Special Ops have been in place for some time now. So the question is:
Are Both US And Korean Special Ops Already at Work in North Korea?
Given how much focus and importance – on a military, diplomatic, economic, as well as trade, level – is placed on the peninsula, it would be absurd to imagine that America and her allies in the region are not already involved in active special operations. Could they have penetrated North Korea’s military? It seems an impossible task. But we can’t absolutely say they haven’t. Rumors of sabotage of some of North Korea’s missile tests floated around the media last year before falling silent. And that’s understandable. A leak of any details of such an operation would result in the torture and death of those involved (as well as many not involved) within the North Korean military.
Could that also be a goal of special ops forces? Induce even greater than normal levels of paranoia on the part of leading military and political figures in the DPRK. Especially Kim Jong-un?
Colonel Maxwell is refreshingly direct in what he believes the goals should be: the end of the DPRK and the unification of the Korean peninsula under a liberal (that is democratic) constitution with an economy that is ‘vibrant’ (i.e., based on South Korean policies) and a non-nuclear state. It's just the sort of laundry list that Kim Jong-un fears. And that President Xi in Beijing also fears.
So perhaps the balancing act is to keep at least some of those goals off the table for now and to focus on how to de-nuclearize North Korea while avoiding a war. Special ops may very well have a role to play in that case as well. They may already be at work, even if it wasn’t them, but rather the nuclear test itself that may have rendered the Punggye-ri facilities inoperable last fall.