Last week, BG Neil H. Tolley, Commander of Special Operations Command, Korea, participated on a panel at the 2012 SOFIC (Special Operations Forces Industry Conference) with other theater special operations commanders.  He was talking about the challenges in dealing with underground facilities in North Korea when he said something like this:

“The entire tunnel infrastructure is hidden from our satellites,” Tolley added. “So we send [Republic of Korea] soldiers and U.S. soldiers to the North to do special reconnaissance.”

An unholy shitstorm has erupted.  Let’s go through this slowly.

David Axe, a journalist who blogs at War Is Boring, wrote up the talk for The Diplomat. The internet exploded. USFK and the Pentagon denied the story.  The Diplomat took down the story, throwing Axe under the bus.  In the process, Axe was called some not very nice things.

Let’s start with what we know for sure. Much of this post is drawn from a pair of blog entries (1|2) in which Axe has helpfully collected all the claims and counterclaims.  He seems like a pretty straightforward guy.

Tolley more or less said the words that Axe attributed to him.  Axe’s notes are similar to the transcription offered by AP’s Kimberly Dozier, which reads:

Concealment of their entire military infrastructure is hidden from satellites and other aerial  reconnaissance and that is an issue for us, so our ISR platforms are not as effective as we need them to be. So we put humans in there. Without going into too much detail on our war plans, we send ROK soldiers, Koreans, to the north, and U.S. soldiers, to do the old special reconnaissance mission. We used to do it in the 80s in Europe. It’s roughly the same kind of thing.

Obviously the sentence in question is “… we send ROK soldiers, Koreans, to the north, and U.S. soldiers, to do the old special reconnaissance mission.”  (Another account picked up on the phrase  “We put humans in there.”)

So Tolley said it.  But did he mean it?  That’s much less clear to me.

A simple, and not unreasonable interpretation, is what Axe reported: that the United States and South Korea  currently send SOF teams into North Korea.  Because, you know, that is what those words mean.

Another alternative, however, is suggested by the references to “war plans” and “the 80s in Europe.”  Tolley may have been speaking in the present tense about a future event — what the United States would do in the event of a war with North Korea.  Narrating future events in the present tense is surprisingly common in colloquial speech. If someone asks, “If there is a war, what do we do?” you may certainly respond “We put humans in there.”  Even if you mean, “We would put humans in there.”  That was the plan in Europe in the 1980s and it is the plan in the Korea today.

We don’t talk the way we write, because if we did, we would all sound like assholes.

Dozier, by the way, asked Tolley about his surprising revelation.  Tolley’s explanation was that was, in fact, speaking about a future hypothetical scenario:

No, no, no, I meant future war plans, i.e. in the event of future all-out hostilities, I would send up USSOF-ROK teams behind enemy lines and they’d need to gather intelligence without much logistical support. The whole country is already starving and if there is all-out war, my people will need to carry in their own supplies, and use equipment that is self-sustaining, where it is solar  or battery powered.

This comment, by the way, almost certainly explains why AP didn’t stick its neck out on the story.   Nor is this an unreasonable comment for Tolley to make.  The existence of preparations to infiltrate after the balloon goes up is not classified.  Here is a picture of ROK special forces conducting an infiltration exercise.

Tolley either really did disclose ongoing US/ROK SOF operations in North Korea or simply unwisely talked about the future using the present tense.  Axe quoted him accurately.  Whether Axe quoted him in context depends on what you think the context was.

Axe made one mistake — he should have done what Dozier did and asked Tolley, or his staff, if the General really meant to commit career suicide and possibility start a war on the Korean Peninsula by disclosing an ongoing program of covert operations against North Korea in violation of the 1953 Armistice.  At least then Axe might have reported what shade of green the General turned before clarifying his remarks.

Axe probably also didn’t appreciate the sensitivity of the subject.  I know that I have had more than one conversation with other folks interested in US-North Korea relations on whether the United States or South Korea still try to operate in the DPRK.  The contested history of US covert operations is part of the debate about who is to blame for the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.   (Pretty much every disagreement about US national security policy comes down to whether the Soviets bear sole responsibility for starting the Cold War, a judgement that in turns depends heavily on accounts of Soviet responsibility for the Korean War.  This is like walking into the First Council of Nicaea and saying loudly, “So explain this to me again. Jesus is god, but he is also the son …”)

Without commenting on larger questions of divinity, sin and redemption, the US has certainly operated in North Korea before. The US dropped SOF teams into North Korea from 1950-1953 under Operation AVIARY.  There is a nice book on the subject, but I recommend the podcast.

Although AVIARY ended, most of us assume that special operations continued for some time.  As Peter Hayes has noted, we now have a partially declassified discussion from 1976 among Henry Kissinger and other senior Ford Administration officials about whether to send in a special forces team to blow up a fuel depot in a North Korean harbor in retaliation for an incident in the DMZ.

Deputy Secretary of Defense William Clements says “I have been told that there have been 200 other such operations and that none of these have surfaced.”  It isn’t clear whether he means in North Korea or all over the world. Kissinger certainly seems surprised at the number, which only makes the whole discussion more enigmatic. (See how easily I used present tense to narrate a past event?)

How long did those kind of operations continue?  Do they continue today?  Hell if I know.  There is a small literature by individuals claiming to be former Special Forces operators.  The polite thing to observe about much of these “first hand” accounts is that they tend to blend fact and fiction.  At least two accounts — one of which purports to be non-fiction masquerading as fiction — describe special rec0naissance operations in North Korea. (I am ashamed of even linking to these things.) In terms of reputable journalists,  The Command: Deep Inside the President’s Secret Army by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady asserts infiltration operation in China, Iran and Syria — including multiple firefights with Iranian forces — but Ambinder and Grady do not mention North Korea.  Maybe they don’t mention North Korea because no such infiltrations have occurred.  On the other hand, if the JSOC is willing to play a road game against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, what’s so off-limits about North Korea?

Then of course there are the North Koreans themselves, who tend to act out when they sense they’ve been victimized. The main argument against this idea, from my perspective, is that the North Koreans haven’t paraded, either dead or alive, what they purport to be a captured US or ROK commando. But they no doubt believe such infiltrations continue, not least because infiltration is exactly what they do. USFK is understandably wary of appearing to confirm North Korean propaganda, either because it may justify North Korea’s past provocations or prompt future ones.

This is quite a fine mess poor David Axe strolled into.  Here is how the venerable Chris Nelson sums it up:

Another old cliche in the news…a US general seemingly proving the adage “loose lips sink ships”….this time with potentially deadly consequences. While it likely would not surprise anyone to learn that US and S. Korean special forces conduct secret ops into N. Korea from time to time (indeed, one both assumes and hopes so, given the depth of the unknowns and their potential threat) to have a US general talk about it in public strikes you as…you can pick the word.