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One of the claims repeated very often lately is that North Korea has largest special forces in the World (such a claim can be found for example in "North Korea a country study" by Federal Research Division, Library of Congress).

While I have little doubt that they have a lot of soldiers that they call "special forces" (180,000 man strong NKSOF - North Korean Special Operation Force), my doubt is, do they have a lot of (if any) units, which would be called special forces by modern western standards?

Clarification: I mean units, would have similar level of training, armament and operational capabilities as their special ops counterparts in countries they consider enemies (South Korea, USA, Japan), rather than self-proclaimed "special forces". Particularly by level of training, I mean combat training, not ability to break cement blocks with bare hands.

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    I would still call Ninjas special forces, and I speak using the western parlance. Ninja stars have not seen substantial upgrades in the past 200 years. – Evan Carroll Apr 9 '13 at 16:38
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    @Sancho By definition special forces groups are trained to perform "unconventional, often high-risk missions" so a direct comparison to NATO special forces isn't really that fair either. If North Korea has trained a bunch of soldiers in asymmetrical warfare then they are arguably special forces. – rjzii Apr 9 '13 at 16:58
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    @Sancho I understand that, but what I'm saying is that there is a huge world of difference between what the public thinks of as special forces and what the military thinks of as special forces. As such, the question is still vague and even if we limit things to high profile NATO special forces groups, the NKSOF could still meet the criteria although their actual effectiveness would obviously been unknown. – rjzii Apr 9 '13 at 18:16
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    @RobZ, If the answer is "The NKSOF get different training or missions than the normal soldier in the N.Korean army, but they are no match compared to the Navy Seals, or other western special forces" and you have sources to back that up, than this should be the answer, If vartec's definition doesn't match the situation, then explain why your definition is better. – SIMEL Apr 9 '13 at 22:00
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    As there's no way of knowing the size and exact strength of the DPRK armed forces, especially lightly equipped units like special forces, except from statements made by the DPRK itself, which are almost certainly inflated and/or otherwise inaccurate for propaganda and operational security reasons, I don't think this question can be answered. – jwenting Apr 10 '13 at 5:56
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Maybe with major caveats that mean that the answer could be yes or no.

First, it is important to define exactly what we mean when we refer to special forces since the first thing that most people will think of is a well known organization such as the US Navy SEALs, US Army Special Forces, or British Special Air Service. However, in a much more general sense they are a part of the military that are trained to conduct unconventional or high-risk missions (i.e. special operations) related to reconnaissance, offensive action, sabotage and demolition, and so forth.1 So from this stand point if the North Korea Special Operation Force (NKSOF) is being trained to perform those missions and the remainder of the North Korean military is not, then in a broad sense we could at least consider them to be special forces due to their intended operational capacities.

Next, we must also remember that North Korea is an extremely secretive state and is known to publish falsified information for apparent propaganda purposes so anything from them must be verified by third parties.

With this in mind it does appear that the claims of 180,000 do not appear to be overly inflated since most estimates are in line with that number and historical data has been showing that the forces were trending in that direction. This means that yes they likely do have the largest special forces in the world since the US military (second largest standing army) has about 67,000 personnel 2 while China's (first largest standing army) is estimated to have between 7,000 - 14,000.

With regards to the second aspect of this question with regards to capacity, quite simply the answer is unknown due to lack of data. While there are reports of North Korean forces that are likely NKSOF harassing the South Korean borders, their actual capabilities have not been tested in a manner that would allow for an easy comparison to other forces. In short, even though the North Korean intent might be to train the NKSOF to engage in special operations, their actual capacity to do so might in fact be deficient.


  1. This is one of the first points at which this answer can go either way. If the full scope of missions that are done by an organization such as the SEALs where applied to the NKSOF then the answer would likely be no since they don't appear to be engaged in training and development of other state's military and special forces.
  2. The actual number of personnel that are engaged in operations might actually be lower since this number appears to also include support personnel.
  • I am reading your answer as saying they don't receive the same level of training as, say, US Navy SEALs. This is an area I am totally ignorant about, so I am certainly not claiming that is wrong, but I can't see from where you drew that conclusion. – Oddthinking Apr 10 '13 at 14:31
  • @Oddthinking Well, we don't actually know the level of training that they receive. From what I have read it appears that they are trained to conduct special operations, but likely not to the level as the SEALs and definitively are not battle tested in the same way that the SEALs are. – rjzii Apr 10 '13 at 14:33
  • @Oddthinking: it's kind of obvious that they cannot train let's say for HALO/HAHO insertion, if they don't have drop-ship capable of this. – vartec Apr 11 '13 at 20:19
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Disclaimer: I don't like answering my own question, so this is marked as community wiki. Feel free to improve.


I've found a paper Maintaining a Rogue Military: "North Korea's Military Capabilities and Strategy at the End of the Kim Jong-il Era" by Bruce E. Bechtol Jr., Angelo State University

Excerpts seem to partially confirm number of NK SOF:

The third and perhaps most ominous (to South Korea) tripod of the North Korean asymmetric threat is Special Operations Forces (SOF).
North Korean SOF are the best trained, best fed, and easily the most indoctrinated of all DPRK military forces. North Korean SOF has a variety of missions - and thus a wide variety of units. These units can be organized by brigade or battalion, all the way down to special two or three man "teams." Most of the SOF units fall under a variety of commands - who often work closely together during exercises or live operations. There are units subordinate to the Light Infantry Training Guidance Bureau (sometimes called the "11th Corps), the Reconnaissance General Bureau, Army Corps’ and Divisions, or Korean People's Navy/Air Force. Most official estimates place their strength at more than 25 brigades and five independent reconnaissance battalions, though those numbers have probably grown significantly since 2006.

The South Korean Ministry of National Defense now places the numbers for SOF in North Korea at around 200,000 men. General Lee also stated that North Korean SOF “have been trained to conduct composite operations, such as major target strikes, assassinations of important figures and disruptions of rear areas in South Korea." High ranking North Korean defector Hwang Jang-yop stated in testimony that "Each North Korean special forces unit has been assigned a specific target in South Korea, usually strategic objectives such as missile bases and airfields. The units will be delivered to their targets by parachute or hovercraft." Military training by SOF during the winter of 2010-2011 was at typical high levels. According to press reports, "Light infantry soldiers march 20 km for 10 hours with a 35 kg gear bag. On the way to the mountains, they train attacking, ambushing, infiltrating and camping. When they arrive at the assembly place, they would have a martial arts match between units to have actual experience."

However, this paper as well as sources it references seems to be using "special operation forces" and "light infantry" interchangeably. See last quote above and also:

North Korea has also been able to augment the troop strength of its SOF by converting several conventional divisions to light infantry divisions

Also the role of NK SOF is described as infiltration and opening "second front" behind enemy lines.

So if NK SOF is just light infantry trained for opening front behind enemy lines, on US side as units with equivalent role one would have to count besides 67,000 strong USSOCOM, also 2 Airborne divisions, 2 Mountain divisions and 7 Marine Expeditionary Units. Which would put total into 170,000-200,000 not counting supporting units. Thus the part about NKSOF being largest force doesn't seem so obvious.

As for level of training there are huge discrepancies between reports, but seem that reports of "highly trained" special forces talk mostly about endurance training and hand-to-hand combat (see above). On the other hand other reports say:

North Korean soldiers are poorly fed, according to analysts and reports from defectors, and rarely train due to scarcity of fuel and ammunition (source)

Another source, Master thesis: "Can North Korean Special Purpose Forces Successfully Conduct Military Operations Against the United States and South Korea?", Major Samuel M. Allmond, Faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College

The research and analysis would indicate that the quality of NK airborne SPF training and mission preparation runs parallel with any of the top military powers in the world to include the United States, the former Soviet Union, China, and South Korea. Because of the importance of their mission, research revealed the soldier of today’s NKPA are better fed, educated, motivated, and equipped than their predecessors who fought in the Fatherland Liberation War. NK SPF training lasts from 12 to 24 weeks or longer depending skills being acquired. In general, the NKPA soldier is wiry, well muscled and kept in top physical condition by constant, strenuous physical training. The KPA soldier is taught to be a revolutionary combatant. They are to be strong in ideology, combat strength and determination. Above all else, the NK SPF soldier is taught not to surrender to enemy forces under any condition. Because of their mental and physical conditioning, the NKPA soldier is noted for his stamina and capabilities in all terrain and weather. Those soldiers who excel in all aspects of their training are considered for SPF membership. These soldiers equate to the best of the best that the NKPA has to offer. Important to note, during research it was determined that what they may lack in technical advantage, they appear to make up for in stamina, commitment, and determination. The net result of the NKPA’s SPF training system is tough, intensively trained fighter who can travel farther and faster with more equipment and less food than almost any other soldier.

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