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YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Special operations forces aren’t just Green Berets fighting on horseback in the Afghan mountains or clandestine operators conducting counterterrorism ops in the Philippine jungles.

Increasingly, U.S. officials say, they are more concerned about how on-the-ground operations fit into the larger context of regional and global realities. Last week, at a United Nations Special Operations Forces conference on Yongsan Garrison, that point was driven home.

“The [SOF] community is very concerned with understanding the culture and context of problems we might face and we’re concerned about it from the lowest tactical levels all the way to the top,” said Col. David Maxwell, U.S. Special Operations Command, Korea chief of staff. “It’s a battlefield of human terrain.”

This year’s conference — the third of its kind in South Korea — included some 130 participants, Maxwell said, with a roughly 50-50 split between U.S. and South Korean representatives. Among participants were members of the United Nations command.

“This is certainly the most well-attended of the three,” Maxwell said. Among the U.S. units there were representatives of the 1st Special Forces Group from Fort Lewis, Wash., and the U.S. Special Operations Command, the 4th Psychological Operations Group and the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, all from Fort Bragg, N.C.

Maxwell has extensive field experience, recently having commanded the 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group on Okinawa. He led Special Forces units on the Philippine island of Basilan, where U.S. troops are training and advising the Philippine military in its fight against armed bandits and terror groups.

Maxwell calls the “A-teams” the heart and soul of Special Forces. Each team member speaks at least one foreign language, is highly trained to fight in combat and must be proficient in at least one collateral skill, such as as intelligence, weaponry, engineering, medicine or communications.

“The main purpose is to raise the level of discussion to put operational thinking into context,” said Kathy Oh Hassig, of the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Va.

“The more they know about the peninsular situation, the global situation … the more they can think on the macro level, it gives them a clear understanding of the strategic issues,” said Hassig, a specialist on North Korea and U.S.-South Korea relations who briefed the SOF operators.

The conference also included a special resource: some 20 North Korean defectors, on hand to give first-person accounts of the secretive regime.

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