SEOUL — Little is known about the secretive country considered the most closed society in the world.
Crossing into North Korea, analysts say, you could expect to find crushing poverty, widespread hunger and a massive military that includes nearly one in three of the communist nation’s citizens. Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess.
"It’s such an isolated society that we only have ... glimpses of what’s going on," said Brig. Gen. Richard Haddad, commander of Special Operations Command Korea.
Should U.S. forces ever be called on for a mission inside North Korea, it is the unknown that presents the biggest challenge, Haddad said.
Special operations forces are trained for unconventional warfare, often executed by teams of guerrilla fighters. Those forces — which include troops who specialize in civil affairs and psychological operations — can also be used after major fighting to track down remnants of the enemy and build up a country’s security forces to restore order, as they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For them, knowing how the average North Korean views the country’s leaders and the U.S. is critical. So is knowing the landscape, since they could be dropped behind enemy lines in small teams with only the gear on their backs for support, analysts said at a recent special operations forces conference at U.S. Army-Garrison Yongsan, South Korea.
They painted a picture of a country whose population is poor, hungry, weak and increasingly unhappy with the corruption and opulent lifestyles of Kim Jong Il and the elites who run the communist country. And, they said, Kim Jong Il’s regime is weak and unlikely to survive a change in leadership.
Geographically, the hatchet-shaped country is bordered by seas on two sides, offering plenty of coastline where teams of special operations forces could be inserted. But those teams would operate on difficult, mountainous terrain that North Korea’s 80,000 special operations forces know well, said conference speaker Markus Garlauskas, an intelligence analyst for U.S. Forces Korea who studies possible future challenges with North Korea.
But he said the country’s mountains and poor infrastructure could also help U.S. troops isolate parts of the country from the North Korean military during a war.
U.S. troops would also face a network of underground military facilities that are a double-edged sword — bad if you stumble across them but good if you can capture them and have a hiding spot to operate from, Garlauskas said.
U.S. troops would face a wave of problems in North Korea if the regime collapses, including loose nuclear weapons, pockets of resistance fighters, looting and millions of refugees heading to China and South Korea, said retired Brig. Gen. Russell Howard, a former Special Forces officer and now a senior fellow at the Joint Special Operations University, who spoke at the conference.
In the chaos and anarchy that would follow, some North Korean groups — splintered by political and economic divisions — might be fighting for control of the country.
"There may be organized resistance that may be as afraid of each other as they are of us," he said.
For U.S. special operations forces, their biggest job might be finding weapons of mass destruction in the country before someone else does — a mission that likely would require infiltration and boots on the ground, Howard said in an interview after the conference.
"I just don’t think dropping a 500-pound bomb is going to work in the caves or wherever they have this stuff," he said. "You have to go in and find this stuff."
Special operations forces could also be used in a counterpropaganda campaign to help change the negative perceptions of Americans that North Koreans have. And they could be used to track and help care for the 5 million refugees who are expected to try to go to South Korea and China.
It would take 450,000 to 500,000 military personnel to "achieve success" after the collapse of the regime, Howard said.
Special operations forces would be used differently than they are in Iraq or Afghanistan, where they are tasked with hunting down al-Qaeda and the Taliban and training the fledgling security forces in each country, Howard said. In North Korea, U.S. troops would be working with their South Korean counterparts and might not be needed to work with North Korean forces after the initial "direct action" phase, he said.
But if special operations forces were to train guerrilla forces, a key question is whether a typical North Korean — controlled, obedient, isolated and heavily indoctrinated to hate Americans — can be persuaded to participate in unconventional warfare and fracture the regime’s control.
"He may even believe this is an elaborate sting operation to test his loyalty," Garlauskas said.
U.S. troops could leverage resentment toward the elites who make up 25 percent of North Korea’s population to persuade North Koreans to fight with them, he said. But if they believe the U.S. will win, those same elites might also want to partner with U.S. forces as a way to secure their position in the next government, he said.
Complicating matters for troops on the ground is the question of whether North Korea’s neighbors would decide to enter the fight or try stop the flow of refugees into their countries, something nobody knows.
"It’s not just about what will North Korea do. It’s about what will the Chinese do; what will the Russians do," Garlauskas said.
Finally, experts agreed, preparation is vital.
If a war with North Korea were to come, it could develop quickly "from a certain slow boiling crisis like the one we’re in now," Garlauskas said. "It may not be immediately clear that a crisis is really going anywhere, until it suddenly takes the proverbial turn south."
Howard stressed that planning is critical also in the event of the collapse of the Pyongyang regime.
"Once it gets out of hand, you can’t put it back in the box," he said.