TOKYO — The U.S. military on Tuesday denied a report that it has been sending commandos into North Korea to spy on underground military facilities, a mission that would violate the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War.
A U.S. military statement said the Diplomat, an Asia-Pacific current affairs journal, had “taken great liberal license” with the comments attributed to a top U.S. general. According to the Diplomat, Brig. Gen. Neil H. Tolley, commander of special operations for U.S. Forces Korea, said at a conference last week that U.S. and South Korean commandos parachute into the North to conduct reconnaissance on underground tunnels that are hidden from satellites.
“Quotes have been made up and attributed to him,” the U.S. statement said. “No U.S. or [South Korean] forces have parachuted into North Korea.”
But analysts warned that North Korea, despite the U.S. denial, could seize the initial report as evidence of American belligerence, a central theme of its propaganda and a key rationale for its military spending and provocations. Last week, Pyongyang vowed to bolster its “nuclear deterrence” if the United States continued a hostile policy toward the North.
“Anything like this, it just plays right into the hands of North Korea,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based security expert at the International Crisis Group. “It proves their narrative that America just wants to topple the regime. They can pick up the original story and just run with that.”
According to the Diplomat, Tolley gave details about a sensitive commando program at a conference last week in Tampa for members of the special-operations industry. The reporter, David Axe, who has spent time embedded with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, said in a phone interview Tuesday that he is an expert on war and technology but not on the Korean Peninsula specifically.
Given the backlash Tuesday to his initial four-paragraph story, he had become uncertain about its accuracy, Axe said. He posted his notes from the event on a personal blog.
“Is it possible [Tolley] was speaking hypothetically?” Axe said. “Absolutely it is. But unless I’m incompetent — and it’s possible I am — he didn’t make that clear. Man, if I had known this was going to start a war, I would have hunted down his staff and asked for clarity.”
A spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea said officials are looking for a transcript of the event but have yet to find one.
U.S. officials have often described North Korea as their toughest intelligence target. Until the early 1970s, the South sent thousands of spies into the North, and at one point the South even trained 31 commandos to assassinate Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea. (The mission backfired when the commandos mutinied and killed their trainers.) Experts doubt that any comparable spy programs exist today.
The United States runs spy missions in numerous dangerous countries, security experts note, but few present the kind of challenges posed by North Korea, which has near-sealed borders and redundant layers of surveillance agencies. In recent years, U.S. intelligence officials have learned of important events in the North — such as the development of a uranium-enrichment facility and the death of leader Kim Jong Il — only when the Pyongyang government announced them.