Could U.S. Special Forces Really Inflitrate North Korea?

May 30th, 2012
11

What would be required to make recent (reported) statements by Army Brig. Gen. Neil Tolley a reality from a tactical and technological standpoint?   The recent article in The Diplomat asserting that U.S. forces were entering North Korea for intelligence gathering purposes generated a lot of publicity. In this piece, we will take a quick look at many of the tactical and some technological issues involved in infiltrating any country.

Quite aside from the political issues (sovereignty, Causus Belli, etc), there were many technological breakthroughs assumed in the article.  And even if the speech was in hypothetical terms, there are still some technology breakthroughs required.  The bold, underlined, italicized portions represent the greatest breakthroughs that would be required for a successful infiltration of the DPRK using the means suggested by BG Tolley:

(Brigadier General) Tolley outlined new equipment he said would boost the spies’ capabilities without giving them away to North Korean troops. For starters, he said his men could use a lightweight sensor able to “characterize what’s in a facility from standoff distance.” In addition, the commandos would benefit from a high frequency radio whose signal can’t be tracked back to its origin. Finally – and most dramatically – Tolley said a wireless power transmission system would allow his troops to jump into North Korea without heavy loads of batteries for their radios and other gear.

But before considering the specific challenges involved in infiltrating the DPRK – two things to bear in mind.

1.  Prudence would dictate that while any troops going into North Korea would have some very good equipment, they would likely not take in leading edge stuff. Why? Capture. The U.S. doesn’t want to give its very best stuff to North Korea or any other country it might “share” the technology with. Anything U.S. troops take in would therefore have a “kill switch” to erase everything and turn it into a pile of silicon. The equipment would also likely have been designed to self destruct if opened in any way other than a set of extremely complicated and counter intuitive steps.

2.  Any equipment being brought in would also likely be on the ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation). In other words, even though some of the pieces may be COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) most of the pieces and certainly the assembled product would be export controlled. One couldn’t go to any local store and buy these products. And one couldn’t sell any of these things anyway without getting a license from the United States Department of State and likely a review from the Defense Technology Security Administration.

With that background as background, let’s move on. All reconnaissance operations have common steps aside from the reconnoitering mission:  pre-Mission planning; Insertion/Infiltration; Sustainment; Communication; Exfiltration; Debriefing.  Importantly, Pre-Mission planning, Debriefing and parts of sustainment (i.e. water and food) aren’t so much affected by technology. We’ll focus on the remaining steps and what looks new.

Infiltration/Insertion is via 1 of 3 avenues: Air, Water, Land

–Infiltration Air:  According to the article the teams / operators would parachute into North Korea. This would mean that there is a new technology which allows aircraft to become invisible to North Korea’s formidable Air Defense Systems. Several possibilities: New stealth troop transport aircraft, new jamming device to blind or deafen formidable DPRK air defenses operating across broad and disparate parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, or there’s some new computer software “update” to selectively interpret certain signatures as though they don’t exist.


–Infiltration Water: Even though this wasn’t mentioned, it also wasn’t specifically excluded. Infiltrating via water would mean solving technological issues like moving in undetected, having exact bathymetric data (underwater topography) and knowing what suites of sensors North Korea deployed in their waters.


–Infiltration Land: We’ll immediately discount walking in from China or Russia for many reasons. That leaves the option of walking across the DMZ, one of the most fortified and heavily mined areas of the world. Many of the original emplacement sketches for mine layouts are inaccurate due to soil erosion and time. But the U.S. has much experience looking for mines and other explosives and therefore presently has some very sophisticated methods to find them. Still, walking across the DMZ and taking a path through a minefield – even if there is a device allowing troops to know the location of each and every mine – is time consuming, dangerous and leaves them exposed for an extended period of time. How about tunneling? How did the U.S. find four North Korean tunnels?

Capacities Required if U.S. Forces Successfully Enter DPRK Territory:

–Reconnoitering (characterize what is in a facility from a standoff distance): Characterization would likely involve using the senses to figure out what is going on at a place. “Stand off distance” is purposefully vague, but let’s just use 5km. It is hard to walk up to the front door and stay hidden. Sensors replicate the five senses we have, but are usually far sharper and broader than human beings.


Seeing: Sensors have the ability to train an unblinking eye. Moreover, they can “see” in wavelengths humans can’t. So a sensor can look in infrared, ultraviolet and other bands to capture images in various wavelengths. Specialists will stare at screens and make sense of the mosaic of spectral imagery.


Hearing / Touch: Sensors are also able to hear in ranges human ears can’t. Those sensors can also pick up vibrations which are imperceptible to the human touch. Since there’s not a whole lot of other machinery in North Korea, cataloging the panoply of sounds allows one to know what “normal” sounds like. Sounds outside the “normal” catalog immediately trigger a “what’s that”. Sensors picking up localized vibrations can therefore provide important clues.


Taste / Smell: While licking a building can in no way characterize its function, the senses of taste and smell are inextricably linked and even more so in the sensor world. Think something closer to a snake’s tongue that samples the air to tell what’s going on. Smoke provides many rich clues as to what’s burning. Trace chemical signatures provide more hints as to the purpose of a facility. A computer center and a weapons storage area have very different exhaust profiles. This provides clues to why NASA samples the soil wherever it goes. There are many clues about what is based nearby by what is in the soil. As examples, extremely high ammonia content would likely indicate something different than a soil sample rich in iron. Radiation detectors are so sensitive nowadays, they can track the spread of radiation in tuna swimming from Fukushima to the California coast. The amount of radiation is so low, one would have to eat 8000 lbs of tuna to get an unsafe amount of radiation. A stream of air reeking of subterranean mold is a simplistic example of a smell sensor helping determine something at “standoff distance”.


–Sustainment: (batteries / electricity): Nikola Tesla wrote of wireless electricity transmission and undertook many experiments to prove his ideas. However, he was never able to turn his ideas into large scale commercial success. If there is now a viable wireless power transmission system, it would revolutionize the worldwide power grid. Without getting into too much eye-glazing detail, wireless power is usually 1 of 3 types: direct induction; resonant magnetic induction or electromagnetic radiation. Direct and resonant have only been proven so far over short ranges. Most extension cords are longer and far more efficient. However, lasers have been proven to carry electricity over a larger distance. But even some of the proof of concept laser transmissions were under a kilowatt and under a kilometer.

Assuming there were some breakthroughs, a Low Earth Orbiting satellite zipping overhead could beam a laser to a team on the ground. However, it would be like sinking a billiard ball from over 150 km away. Possible, but very difficult. And the team would only get a few minutes of laser time. If a geostationary satellite were used, it would be like sinking a billiard ball from over 36,000 km away. And at that distance even a highly collimated, low beam divergence laser toward the ultraviolet end of the spectrum would still have to hit a 40 – 50 % efficient panel. Developing that kind of a satellite, laser, tracker and heaving it into space would likely cost in the billions.

It would be much cheaper and easier to use solar chargers and batteries.


–Communication: All military radios, even “High Frequency radio”; adhere to MIL-STD-188-100/200/300 series specifications (Military Standard-188 Series). High Frequency is 3MHz to 30MHz with a wavelength of 100m to 10m. The usual transmission power for these kinds of radios is anywhere between 1 and 30 watts. 20 watts is closer to the norm. The lower the wattage, the better the chance of remaining hidden. At 20 watts, it is possible to skywave propagate to a ground station 800 km away. That distance easily allows any reconnaissance mission transmission from anywhere in North Korea to reach anywhere in South Korea or even a ship bobbing in international waters (to avoid sovereignty issues) and also increase directionality away from areas the DPRK might monitor. However, completely eliminating the ability to determine the source of HF waves is not presently possible. It is entirely possible to make the job of detecting the source origin very difficult and expensive. It is entirely feasible to shorten transmission times via robust data compression algorithms or decrease wattage by using highly directional antennae, but given the current state of physics it’s impossible to completely disguise the source of an electromagnetic transmission.

Aside from radio, lasers can communicate an amazing amount of information in an extremely short time and since the beam is so narrow, it is extremely unlikely the laser would be intercepted. Thus, the laser makes an excellent communication device instead of skywave propagation via an uncertain ionosphere.


–Exfiltration: same as above except the team can’t un-parachute. This is easily the most dangerous – and important part of the plan.


So we have looked at just some common sense, open source implications and capabilities needed to turn “hypotheticals” into tangible reality. In some areas, technology would seem to be feasible, in other areas, the technologies would be “disruptive” in that they open up completely new ways of doing things.

And this wasn’t an exhaustive look at the issues. Now it’s easier to understand why those few remarks cited in the original Diplomat article generated so many reactions.

Thoughts or comments?

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About the Author

Roger Cavazos

Roger Cavazos is a non-resident Associate at Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in San Francisco, with extensive U.S. Army experience in analyzing China, Taiwan, and Cross-Straits relations.

Join the discussion

  • Sheejun

    That is very interesting, thank you for your insight.

  • Sheejun

    That is very interesting, thank you for your insight.

  • newageman

    So, Roger, who is telling the truth?

    You need to read this blog by the reporter, David Axe:
    http://www.warisboring.com/2012/05/28/context-of-the-korea-special-forces-story/

  • newageman

    So, Roger, who is telling the truth?

    You need to read this blog by the reporter, David Axe:
    http://www.warisboring.com/2012/05/28/context-of-the-korea-special-forces-story/

  • http://twitter.com/Nautilus_Inst Nautilus Institute

    Interesting

  • http://twitter.com/Nautilus_Inst Nautilus Institute

    Interesting

  • http://twitter.com/roger_cavazos Roger Cavazos 金大健

    Newageman – Thank you for pointing out David’s article.  It’s an interesting read
    and a success story overall, even though I’m sure David feels he would
    have rather had anesthetic-free root canal surgery.

    You ask a very reasonable and appropriate question which I can’t answer.  That’s part of why I wanted to squirm around it and keep it in the hypothetical.  I expect the real truth will come out 25 to 30 years after reunification. 

    My personal opinion is that we (U.S. and ROK) don’t have anyone in DPRK right now.  Collective risk muscle / stomach can’t presently handle it. 

    Initially credible and verifiable first and second hand sources exist to indicate the blanket statement “We’ve never had any forces there” is wrong.  Special Forces (Green Berets) weren’t insituted until after the Korean War, but during the Korean War there were young and brave (ok sometimes just plain ole crazy) troops performing special missions in North Korea.  South Korea has a stronger risk muscle, but I think the Silmido-era Korea and present day Korea are too distant to have kept such a strong risk tolerance for so long.

    If the KPA is suddenly pinging DOD websites, scouring every square meter of DPRK, pouring tons of money they don’t have into strengthening defenses, and trying to develop anti-flux capacitor gadgets (i.e. make believe capabilities) those are unintended, but likely welcome developments.

    The real success stories however are: 1) David bringing many issues to light; 2) forcing the system to answer reasonable questions and 3) stimulating civic discourse like we’re doing

  • http://twitter.com/roger_cavazos Roger Cavazos 金大健

    Newageman – Thank you for pointing out David’s article.  It’s an interesting read
    and a success story overall, even though I’m sure David feels he would
    have rather had anesthetic-free root canal surgery.

    You ask a very reasonable and appropriate question which I can’t answer.  That’s part of why I wanted to squirm around it and keep it in the hypothetical.  I expect the real truth will come out 25 to 30 years after reunification. 

    My personal opinion is that we (U.S. and ROK) don’t have anyone in DPRK right now.  Collective risk muscle / stomach can’t presently handle it. 

    Initially credible and verifiable first and second hand sources exist to indicate the blanket statement “We’ve never had any forces there” is wrong.  Special Forces (Green Berets) weren’t insituted until after the Korean War, but during the Korean War there were young and brave (ok sometimes just plain ole crazy) troops performing special missions in North Korea.  South Korea has a stronger risk muscle, but I think the Silmido-era Korea and present day Korea are too distant to have kept such a strong risk tolerance for so long.

    If the KPA is suddenly pinging DOD websites, scouring every square meter of DPRK, pouring tons of money they don’t have into strengthening defenses, and trying to develop anti-flux capacitor gadgets (i.e. make believe capabilities) those are unintended, but likely welcome developments.

    The real success stories however are: 1) David bringing many issues to light; 2) forcing the system to answer reasonable questions and 3) stimulating civic discourse like we’re doing

  • Pingback: Editor’s Note « SINO-NK()

  • FtheDPRK

    You people are fucking insane. It’s sad, really.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Veaney-Arteaga/100000527513856 Veaney Arteaga

    Firing squad if the DPRK’s army gets a hand on you. Is it worthy? Why not use of drones and robot soldier (Soon to come, not hollywood) Satellite spy’s and radar can pick telephone conversations (The baby leader asking for more kumchi , turtle soup or women, since his lady is pregnant,¿¿??)