Can Foreign Special Forces Penetrate Yongbyon?

With news of North Korea evicting International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) personnel, whether or not the Yongbyon nuclear facility will be re-started has been garnering some international interest. If North Korea actually decides to re-start plutonium production, then Yongbyon may be added unto the list of targets for U.S. military review.

Former President Kim Young Sam has said that around the beginning of the first North Korean nuclear threat in 1994, the U.S. apparently prepared for an attack against the Yongbyon facility. The Clinton administration had two aircraft carriers and 33 support vessels ready, but due to former President Kim’s opposition the attack plan was withdrawn.

North Korea has a fortress of 22 anti-aircraft defenses surrounding the Yongbyon facility prepared for an air raid from the U.S. At the Oncheon Air Base in North Pyongan Province near Yongbyon, 16 MIG-29 fighters, the best North Korea has, are deployed.

Nevertheless, experts agree that, based on equipment and degree of military experience, if the U.S. decides to launch an air raid there is virtually no possibility of the North defending itself again such an attack.

However, what about attacks on land? If the mission were given to the Headquarters of the South Korean Special Forces to neutralize the Yongbyon facility, then what would be the probability of success? North Korean military training exercises aim to find out.

The Yongbyon nuclear facility is located in the administrative district of Bungang, Yongbyon in North Pyongan Province. Among the military defense forces in charge of the facility is the 64th Regiment, considered one of the best “shields” in North Korea, under the direct control of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces. The approximate size of the Regiment is 2,000 troops. The Regiment, in charge of the outer patrol of Bungang, Yongbyon, carries out the following duties: guarding the frontier, regulating the entry and exit of personnel, and maintaining mines and electric fences.

Under the command of the 64th Regiment are the rear service, General Staff, Political Divisions of Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces and Defense Security Command; the Regiment also includes a defense squadron, mechanical and chemical platoons, medical office, car maintenance office, armored car platoon and small arms platoons which are collectively in charge of internal patrols.

With the exception of the Command Division, there are eleven squadrons. Among these, the 8th squadron is in charge of patrolling private farms, steel bridges, private homes, tunnels, and Guryeong River checkpoints through which persons, vehicles, and machinery pass.

The 9th squadron regulates commodity transport, subsidiary businesses and other projects. With the exception of the 8th and the 9th squadrons, the remaining nine squadrons are responsible for landmines scattered around the outer ring of Bungang and concealed checkpoints near electric or steel fences.

The soldiers on checkpoint duty have to remain on strict watch regardless of rain or snow. As a result, some of them end up suffering from severe arthritis. A squadron, composed of three platoons, is in charge of two concealed checkpoints.

The military unit which successfully prevented infiltration by South Korean Liaison Bureau “agents” in a 1999 simulation was the members of the nine squadrons in charge of the outer boundaries of Bungang.

The “agents” of the Liaison Bureau which had been thrown into the military operations tried to penetrate the defenses by climbing the cliff of the Guryeong River. Bungang is surrounded by Guryeong River with the exception of the entrance, which is guarded by the 8th squadron of the 64th Regiment.

Because there is no other way to pass through the County, the infiltration units attempted entry by hanging a rope unto the cliff. However, 49 units were detained by the patrol units of the 64th Regiment on duty or were injured.

Among the 50 units, one survived, but it was also caught by the cordon of the 53rd Construction Brigade stationed in the County and failed in its attack.

In North Korea, the Liaison Bureau agents, also considered invincible fighters worth 100 soldiers, are the best fighters. During training, however, the agents who participated in military operations also confessed, “The patrol situation around Bungang is like an iron wall, more difficult than invading South Korea.”

Accordingly, it will not be easy for South Korean special forces to succeed in infiltrating it.

The soldiers of the 64th Regiment are the best in terms of their defense, but among the North Korean military they are also the worst in terms of understanding the way society works.

Average soldiers in North Korea can go out on vacations or outside excursions by using health ailments or the need to acquire goods as an excuse, but the soldiers stationed in Bungang are not allowed breaks during their terms of duty. Letters that are sent home also have to go through inspections, so there are soldiers who still do not know about the food crisis in the late 1990s in North Korea.

Until the early 2000s, some soldiers would even leave behind 10kg of rice in their units because “it was too heavy to carry back home.”

The soldiers stationed in Bungang would receive meat soup twice a week, two new pairs of shoes every year, and a new uniform every two years. When they are discharged from the army, they receive 30,000~40,000 North Korean won, a sum which is unfathomable for third-grade soldiers.

However, the 64th Regiment soldiers also suffer from high levels of tuberculosis (TB) and hepatitis. Some suspect that their immunity has been weakened due to their exposure to the nuclear facility. As a result, the tuberculosis hospital ward is always filled to capacity and countless soldiers are evacuated to the No. 68 Hospital (TB hospital). This has not only affected soldiers, but has also been discovered among the researchers and their families residing in the Bungang region; there are also children suffering from undocumented birth defects.