U.S. commandos train for the unexpected in North Korea’s shadow

By Thomson Reuters Mar 15, 2024 | 1:19 AM

By Josh Smith

GWANGJU, South Korea (Reuters) – U.S. special operations troops in South Korea are training and preparing for unexpected threats at a time when global crises are more interconnected than ever, their commander said during an exercise this week.

“Nothing in the history of the United States should give us any faith and confidence that we know where the next threat is coming from,” Brigadier General Derek Lipson of Special Operations Command – Korea said in an interview on the sidelines of joint drills.

Nuclear-armed North Korea in recent years has made unprecedented strides in its weapons programs, including massive new ballistic missiles that can reach the United States and speedy new tactical missiles designed to defeat missile defence systems.

For the first time, North Korean missiles have been fired in combat, with Russia wielding them this year against targets in Ukraine, according to U.S. officials and independent experts.

And in Asia, Korea joins the South China Sea and Taiwan as flashpoints with the potential to involve the region and the world.

Because of that uncertainty, Lipson is trying to inject more flexibility and decision making into his troops’ training – not just how to shoot a rifle, as he puts it, but deciding when and where.

North Korea has condemned the stepped-up joint drills as provocative rehearsals for invasion and proof of hostile intent by Washington and its allies.

Adding to this year’s unpredictability are the upcoming U.S. elections, which are being closely watched around the world.

Lipson said that although politics play a role in military matters, his job is to ensure his troops are ready regardless of who the president is.

“I think (North Korea) would like nothing more than senior military leaders, junior military leaders, service members, (South Korea) and the U.S. to be worried about the election more than they’re worried about their readiness,” he said. “It’s important to make sure that we understand our role is to be ready, not to be part of the argument.”


During drills on Thursday, a U.S. special operations MC-130 aircraft practiced airdrops with a brigade of South Korean commandos.

As the grey turboprop aircraft circled over the Republic of Korea Special Warfare School Training Range near Gwangju, South Korean troops and a handful of Americans toppled from its doors, jerking and swinging as their parachutes opened.

One U.S. special operations liaison soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his identity is operationally sensitive, said it demonstrated that the allies can work together in a conflict.

Since 2016, U.S. special operations forces have been tasked with countering weapons of mass destruction (WMD), a role with particular relevance given North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal. U.S. intelligence services say Pyongyang also operates biological and chemical weapons programs.

Lipson said advances in North Korea’s capabilities would change how a mission might be executed.

“I’m not going to talk plans, but the ability to execute those where we’re asked and when we’re asked, that’s readiness,” he said. “And that’s what we’re prepared to do.”

During a visit to Army Special Warfare Command on Wednesday, South Korean Defence Minister Shin Won-sik called on special operations troops to hone their ability to “swiftly eliminate” North Korean leadership during a war.

U.S. Forces Korea did not immediately comment when asked whether U.S. troops would play a role in such missions.

The U.S. special operations presence in Korea has grown from about 50 active-duty personnel 25 years ago to a Theater Special Operations Command with some 250 personnel, said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel who served multiple tours in South Korea.

In a war, their role could involve countering WMD, combat and reconnaissance missions, supporting guerrilla forces in the North, psychological operations, and post-conflict counterinsurgency, Maxwell said.


The 10-day Freedom Shield exercises that wrapped up on Thursday saw participation from an unprecedented number of member states from the U.S.-led United Nations Command, which has operated as part of the armistice since the 1950-1953 Korean War.

As a legacy of that war, which was never officially ended, the United States keeps about 28,500 troops in South Korea, and operates a combined command with the South Korean military.

The two sides named envoys this month to launch a new round of talks for a defence cost-sharing deal to take effect in 2026. South Korean media said the aim was for an agreement before the U.S. election in November. Former President Donald Trump, who is the Republican nominee, during his presidency accused Seoul of “free-riding” on U.S. military might.

Lipson said a key part of special operations in South Korea was to work with other partners around the region.

“When we talk about free and open INDOPACOM, that only comes from those relationships, whether they’re bilateral, trilateral… just an understanding that no one is going to do any of it alone,” Lipson said, referring to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which stretches from India and Mongolia to New Zealand across the South Pacific and Southeast Asia.

SOCKOR troops said they had recently conducted separate drills with Thailand and the Philippines.

“Nothing happens in this theatre, greater INDOPACOM area or even globally at this point, that doesn’t have an impact somewhere else,” Lipson said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)