By Alex Ward
South Korea is forming a hit squad to take out North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Following North Korea’s successful test of its sixth and most powerful nuclear bomb earlier this month, the South Korean military has announced it’s creating an assassination unit called the Spartan 3000 to carry out night raids in North Korea. Once in the North, the group could be tasked to kill the leadership — primarily Kim. It could go in early and preempt a North Korean attack on the South, or fight in the middle of a war.
South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo told lawmakers of the government’s intention to build the “decapitation unit” on September 4, the day after the recent nuclear test. The administration wants the team ready by the end of the year.
The unit is central to a longstanding plan to fight North Korea if necessary — called “Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation.” In September 2016, the North tested its fifth nuclear weapon, which at that point was the largest bomb it had detonated. Two days later, the South Korean military noted it had the option to kill North Korean leadership, including Kim.
South Korea’s previous president, the hawkish Park Geun-hye, planned to have the unit ready by 2019. But it appears the administration of the dovish Moon Jae-in wants it ready to go much sooner — likely because Moon needs to show he’s pushing back on a more aggressive North.
“I think this may be more in response to domestic pressure on the Moon administration to reintroduce US tactical nuclear weapons than an escalation with North Korea,” Troy Stangarone, an expert at the Korea Economic Institute, told me in an interview. Last week, Song floated that idea in front of political leaders, but Moon has repeatedly said he doesn’t want those weapons in South Korea.
“This has been getting quite a bit of play over the last few days, so [the administration] need[s] to be seen as taking strong steps to defend South Korea in the absence of a nuclear option,” Stangarone continued. “This is about deterrence.”
The announcement seems to have the approval of former South Korean military leaders. “The best deterrence we can have, next to having our own nukes, is to make Kim Jong Un fear for his life,” Shin Won-sik, a South Korean three-star general who retired in 2015, told the Times.
The Spartan 3000 will be a modern version of a ragtag assassination team the South Koreans created in the 1960s. Back then, the South Korean military secretly trained prisoners and others to go into North Korea and kill then-leader Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather.
But the new unit is officially recognized by the Moon government. And it’s not the only military moves this administration has made in recent days.
South Korea is preparing for an unlikely war
“We cannot rely only on our ally for our security,” Moon said in a nationally televised speech on August 15, alluding to the United States. “When it comes to matters related to the Korean Peninsula, our country has to take the initiative in resolving them.”
And take the initiative he has. On September 5, Moon told Trump that South Korea wants to build a nuclear submarine. Seoul also wants to increase the payload on its missiles so they can do more damage, and has temporarily deployed the last four THAAD missile defense systems that it bought from the US. And Moon plans to buy more military equipment from the United States now that President Donald Trump has approved the sales.
The New York Times also reports that South Korea has three ongoing war plans: “Kill Chain,” in which South Korea would preemptively launch missiles at North Korea if it detected Pyongyang was about to shoot projectiles of its own at the South; “Korea Air and Missile Defense,” which aims to take out any rockets shot by North Korea’s artillery force, which is the largest in the world; and “Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation,” where the goal is to destroy the area in Pyongyang Kim hides in to avoid assassination.
South Korea is naturally worried about what North Korea can do. In case of a war, South Korea would be one of Pyongyang’s first targets. Seoul, South Korea’s capital with a metro area that hosts around half of the country’s 50 million people, is only about 35 miles from the inter-Korean border. That’s near where around 70 percent of North Korea’s ground forces are stationed.
One war game convened by the Atlantic back in 2005 predicted that a North Korean attack would kill 100,000 people in Seoul in the first few days alone. Others put the estimate even higher. A war game mentioned by the National Interest predicted Seoul could “be hit by over half-a-million shells in under an hour.”
Critics may still see Moon as a dove on North Korea. But that description doesn’t seem to fit after some of these latest militaristic moves — which Moon wants to do to stave off a North Korean attack.