Paging the “COIN mafia” -- if this report in the Straits Times is accurate, it looks like the North Korean government is gearing up its unconventional capabilities in a big way. The paper says the North (DPRK) has made a “fundamental shift” in the way it plans to wage war.
Last month, South Korea's Ministry of National Defence (MND) released its biennial defense White Paper, and it reported that “North Korea has substantially bolstered its special forces,” according to the Straits Times, “expanding their strength by 50 per cent over just two years - from an already hefty 120,000 personnel in 2006 to 180,000 last year.” An MND official is quoted as saying that the DPRK is “seeking to blur the line between friend and foe in a conflict scenario” to try and make up for its lack of advanced weaponry. In other words, according to the official, Pyongyang is responding to “lessons it had learnt while watching the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Writing on the Kings of War blog, David Betz of the Department of War Studies, King's College London, says that the lesson North Korea is taking from Iraq and Afghanistan is that “when fighting Western armies you can tie them in knots with irregular techniques whereas confronting them in a conventional order of battle is a good way to get slaughtered.”
It's not terribly surprising that the DPRK is looking at irregular capabilities. Actually, it would be surprising if states like North Korea weren’t doing this.
But just as potential adversaries are looking for holes in American or NATO abilities that they can potentially exploit, the United States seems to be on top of it, at least in theory. In testimony yesterday before the House Armed Services Committee, Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, chief of U.S. Joint Forces Command, told the committee that he is “absolutely certain” that irregular warfare “will be with us in future conflicts,” and therefore, “we must make irregular warfare a core competency; and this is Joint Forces Command's top priority right now.”
This idea was captured in the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations report released this past January by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which recognized that in the future, even an “advanced military power can be expected to adopt some methods considered ‘irregular’ by Western standards…Rather than attempting to defeat U.S. forces in decisive battle, even militarily significant states are likely to exploit increasingly inexpensive but lethal weapons in an erosion strategy aimed at weakening U.S. political resolve by inflicting mounting casualties over time.”
It’s tough to gauge just how well the DPRK’s special forces would fare in a fight with a wealthier, industrialized nation or what other ways the country is changing its defense strategy, but we’ve already seen the damage lightly trained individuals, connected with a network, can cause with some explosive material and homemade detonators. To think that the rest of the world isn’t paying attention would be disasterous.