N. Korea Hones Commando Delivery Skills From Sea
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — North Korea is improving its special forces delivery capabilities with upgrades to its Sang-O (Shark)-class coastal submarines and construction of a Kongbangclass hovercraft base near the South Korean border on the west coast.
The effort to improve its commando delivery platforms is not surprising and well within the capabilities of North Korean naval designers, said Bruce Bechtol, author of the book, “Defiant Failed State: The North Korean Threat to International Security.”
“This is in keeping with North Korea’s philosophy since the mid-1990s of improving on asymmetric weapons that are alternatives to going head to head with superior and more modern ROK [South Korean] and U.S. weapon systems,” he said. By continuing to improve on these asymmetric systems, North Korea can credibly threaten the South, as evidenced by the 2010 sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, he said.
Over the past 10 years, North Korean special forces, including light infantry, have increased from 120,000 to 200,000, said Joseph Bermudez, author of the book, “North Korean Special Forces.” Bermudez clarified that the term special forces in North Korea includes light infantry. When you are thinking of special forces, you cannot think of them as Green Berets, he said. These are largely increases in light infantry capabilities.
It is unclear how many of the 32 Sang-O subs are being upgraded, but the modifications include an increase in dive speed from 8.8 to 12 knots.
The submarines have been lengthened by 4 meters from the original 116.5 meters, which will allow for more troops, weapons, fuel and greater range, Bermudez said. The time frame of when these modifications were initiated is unclear.
The original 250-ton Sang-O-class coastal submarines are divided into reconnaissance and attack variants. The reconnaissance variants could carry up to 18 troops, while the attack variant carried torpedoes.
A Sang-O was captured in 1996 off the east coast of South Korea, and several 90-ton Yugo-class midget submarines have been lost in operations against the South.
Despite media reports, the Sang-O is unlikely to have been responsible for the sinking last year of the Cheonan. Instead, North Korean forces most likely used a Yugo, which often operates from a mother ship disguised as a merchant vessel, Bermudez said.
North Korean special forces also will be using a new hovercraft base. Late last year, South Korean and U.S. intelligence detected the construction of a base in North Korea near the west coast town of Sasulp’o, Hwanghae-namdo.
The new base is in an area where forward elements of the West Sea Fleet’s 29th Sniper Brigade, comprising two battalions, are based.
These battalions are supported by two squadrons of 82-ton Nampoclass high-speed landing craft, Bermudez said. Each craft can carry 35 troops at 36 knots. Combined, the two squadrons have a total single voyage lift capability of 800 troops or about “one-and-a-half Navy sniper battalions,” he said.
The construction of the new hovercraft base began last year and consists of three hovercraft compounds. Two of the three compounds consist of 16 hovercraft bays around a central yard, while the third compound consists of 20 bays around a central yard with a total covered capability for 52 hovercraft, Bermudez said. The bays are large enough to accommodate the Kongbang II/III and other hovercraft in North Korea’s navy. The base is about 20 to 30 percent complete.
The Kongbang can carry 40 to 50 troops at a top speed of 50 knots, Bermudez said. It is believed to be based on the British SR.N6 Winchester-class hovercraft.
Should the new base become fully equipped with 52 Kongbang hovercraft, the vehicles would possess a total single-lift capability of 1,500 to 2,000 troops, he said. However, if the Kongbang were combined with the Nampo, the combined single-lift capability would be 2,300 to 2,800 sniper troops.
The new hovercraft base is on the Namdae Stream, which flows into the Yellow Sea, a short distance from the Northern Limit Line and the northernmost South Korean controlled islands of Paengnyong-do and Taechong-do. This is where the Cheonan was sunk in March 2010.
North Korea has other special operations vessels. There are about 100 high-speed semi-submersible infiltration craft and seven U.S.-built high-speed racing boats procured in 1993 from shipbuilder Fountain Powerboat Industries. A Fountain official was found guilty of violating U.S. export laws.