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Really? A U.S. General Said Our Special Forces “Have Been Parachuting into North Korea?” (Update: No, Not Really)

What could possibly go wrong with this?

US and South Korean special forces have been parachuting into North Korea to gather intelligence about underground military installations, a US officer has said in comments carried in US media.

Army Brigadier General Neil Tolley, commander of US special forces in South Korea, told a conference held in Florida last week that Pyongyang had built thousands of tunnels since the Korean war, The Diplomat reported.

“The entire tunnel infrastructure is hidden from our satellites,” Tolley said, according to The Diplomat, a current affairs magazine. “So we send (South Korean) soldiers and US soldiers to the North to do special reconnaissance.” [….]

Among the facilities identified are 20 air fields that are partially underground, and thousands of artillery positions. [AFP]

But can this really be true? First, given the way gravity works — yes, even in North Korea — how would these guys get back out again? Jet packs? Second, this would be an act of war, and haven’t we sort of reserved that as North Korea’s exclusive privilege since 1953? Third, assuming that this is true, why would a serving general officer would say it in a room full of people — any room full of any people — thus increasing the risk of compromise and capture? Fourth, even if it is true, why would we hand the North Koreans a propaganda gift like this? Fifth, North Korea’s underground airfields aren’t necessarily invisible to our satellites, which makes the story’s premise questionable.

The report seemed so suspicious to me that I went back to the original source to see if there was more context for the quotation. Although it does name BG Tolley as its original source, it doesn’t claim that Tolley actually said this on the record or in the presence of the reporter, David Axe; instead, it says that Tolley told this to “a conference in Florida.” We don’t know what conference, where, or who was present, which means that this could be third-hand information (and thus, a misunderstanding, or outright disinformation). Nor does it say when these missions occurred.

Within the next few days, we can expect to see an official denial, but a story like this one can’t be untold. No matter how implausible it all sounds, there are just too many people who would never believe a denial. I haven’t decided whether I’m one of those people, but given how little our government does about the things it knows damn well North Korea is doing, you have to wonder why we’d take such profound risks to gather yet more intelligence to not act on.

UPDATE: David Axe seems to acknowledge that he misunderstood BG Tolley. Interesting that AFP, whose story has already circulated globally, quotes the Army’s denial but fails to note that Axe, the original source, now doubts what he wrote, and that it also appears to have misquoted the National Defense Industrial Association journal. I don’t think Axe made this up intentionally, but it’s a case study in how sloppy and false reporting gets around the world before the truth catches up. Why were so many papers so quick to believe this before asking obvious questions and going back to reread the original source?

UDPATE 2: Damn. Just look at all the gullible news sources that ran with this completely implausible story without checking or questioning it. The chatrooms at Naver, Indymedia, and Prison Planet will probably be talking about this all year. Congratulations, AFP. You’ve managed to misinform millions of people all over the world, based on a blog post that should have aroused immediate suspicions by anyone remotely familiar with the subject matter. In retrospect, I’m sure AFP will agree that it ought to have asked for USFK’s reaction or corroboration from someone else who heard BG Tolley’s remarks before rushing to print. Now, having failed to do that, the AFP owes the public more than an Army-denies-secret-war update. It should admit that the whole story was baseless and retract it.

As for Axe, I probably feel sorrier for him than I should, maybe because I’ve enjoyed a lot of other things he’s written. And unlike AFP, Axe has at least published a correction. I know that when you’re scribbling notes at events like this, it can be easy to miss things, but as he’s no doubt realized by now, this isn’t the kind of story you print unless you’re sure.

UPDATE 3: David Axe says he’s stepping down as a regular contributor to The Diplomat, which saddens me. He made a very big mistake, realized it, clarified it, and will now suffer consequences to his career and reputation. Meanwhile, the wire service that reported the since-corrected story globally still hasn’t retracted it or even mentioned The Diplomat‘s “clarification.” In fact, the original story, without USFK’s denial, is still available online. Sometimes I wonder if journalism is the last unaccountable profession.

UPDATE 4: Some of the links to the army-denies version of the AFP story are starting to come up “page not found.” Well, good, but a correction would be better. Why does it sometimes seem that the media are so reluctant to tell the truth and so quick to retract it, yet so quick to spread falsehoods and so slow to retract them?

UPDATE 5: Since I last posted this morning, David Axe has gone back on the defensive and has reverted to standing by the retracted report. He’s even claiming “victory” because a Pentagon media spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel James Gregory, and another unknown reporter say that Axe transcribed LTG Tolley’s words correctly. That’s interesting, but if it doesn’t quite convince me, it may be because Axe seems a lot more certain of the accuracy of the quote now than he did when he started updating that post. For example, I wonder how certain Axe can really be that BG Tolley really said “we,” as opposed to “we’d.”

Whether Axe transcribed BG Tolley’s words accurately is still only one part of the real question — whether Axe reported the meaning of Tolley’s words accurately. I agree with Paul Woodward:

Sorry, but a report shouldn’t run just because the reporter is confident about the grammatical accuracy of his note-taking. Even if the general said in the present tense that U.S. special forces were being sent into North Korea, this statement demanded some follow-up questions and corroboration. Too often, journalists end up chasing quotes instead of gathering facts.

The story still doesn’t ring true, and the story of the admission of the story doesn’t ring true, either. As the expression goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This entire story was implausible to begin with, and it’s based entirely on an alleged admission that the speaker now denies. It’s a sensational claim, and the language of Axe’s original post tells me that Axe knew that this was “a big deal” when he posted it.

USFK also went too far when it accused Axe of making up the quote. That was a reckless and mean thing to say, and it’s likely that that accusation and Axe’s story are both untrue. The defensiveness of both USFK and Mr. Axe are understandable but disappointing, because they bring us no closer to the truth. If Gregory’s concession is meant to take some of the pressure off of Axe, that’s probably a better way to get Axe to make a concession of his own.

Having said that, I know I make mistakes, too. Axe links to this post in his, in a way that might be read as suggesting that I accused him of fabricating the quote. I hope no one draws that conclusion, because I’ve never believed that Axe fabricated anything. When I put up the original post, Axe had not yet clarified that he was there to hear BG Tolley’s remarks. I considered the possibility that someone had misinformed Axe about what BG Tolley said, but I never suspected Mr. Axe of fabricating; I suspect him of misunderstanding. I don’t expect him to be infallible, and I wouldn’t want anyone to expect that of me. I do expect his most honest reassessment of the evidentiary support for his extraordinary claim. Maybe when his embarrassment subsides, he’ll agree that this was probably just a regrettable misunderstanding. I hope that happens before North Korea decides to use this as a pretext for some terrible act, or before this story is forever engraved in Korea’s rich conspiracy lore. That is, if it’s not already too late.

UPDATE 6, 31 May 2012: I want to direct you to two new posts on this topic: one explains how North Korea will take advantage of this report for its domestic propaganda, and the other explains why the story itself is so technologically theoretical and implausible.


  1. I’d say the most logical exit route would be swimming out to a boat waiting offshore. Perhaps a submarine.

    Helicopters seem like they’d be much too noisy. I wouldn’t want them going out through either norther border, since that would mean a long wait for the intel report and a high risk of capture, and if they come back via the DMZ, they would have to jump in knowing a weak point in the minefields, and possibly several.


  2. This story is misleading, sensationalist BS. The general was talking to a group of DOD contractors about technologies desired for operations in the field, and was speaking about a hypothetical operation which would be enabled with specific technologies the military would like to acquire.

    A general would not give out EXTREMELY SENSITIVE information of this nature to a conference room of people, even if they were defense contractors. His ass would be detained immediately.

    “So we send ROK [Republic of Korea] soldiers and U.S. soldiers to the North to do special reconnaissance.”
    He was not saying we have sent troops, or are sending troops now, or send troops there regularly. He is proposing a hypothetical solution to a real world intelligence gathering problem, and follows with how they would carry it out using technologies that he would like to see developed.

    Here is something they cut out:?
    “After 50 years, we still don’t know much about the full extent of their underground facilities,” says Tolley, who asks the industry folks to develop “man-packable” sensors that will allow special operators making incursions into the north to get a better handle on just what the North Koreans have underground.”

    source: http://www.tboblogs.com/index.php/news/comments/storm-the-swarm-soccent-deputy-chief-asks-for-technology-to-stop-threat-of-/


  3. Poop, Your explanation makes a lot more sense than the AFP report, which has been updated and is now citing the Web site of the National Defense Industrial Association (no permalink, natch). When I posted the report, it was on page one of Yahoo. Problem is, I don’t see anything on the NDIA website that says that U.S. or ROK forces have parachuted into North Korea.

    It seems a retraction may be in order.


  4. The context was a speech by theater Special Operations Forces commanders at the SOFIC conference in Florida the week of May 21. Tolley spoke on the record to an audience of hundreds of industry, government and media representatives. If he was speaking hypothetically, he did not say so. He spoke in the present tense … and at length. Mine was not the only media report. See also: http://blogs.defensenews.com/sofic/2012/05/23/head-of-special-operations-in-korea-wants-better-intel/ The Defense News story, drawing on the same open comments by Tolley, appeared several days before mine.


  5. The Defense News story seems to depict Tolley saying what he wished he had, what he wished he could do. He is quoted: “we have to put humans there,” but that’s not quite the same as saying, “US and South Korean special forces have been parachuting into North Korea.”


  6. Clarification on North Korea
    By The Diplomat

    In response to the controversy that has attended yesterday’s story on North Korea, The Diplomat has sought corroboration. While the author strongly disputes the contention that any quote was fabricated, we acknowledge the possibility that Brig. Gen. Tolley was speaking hypothetically, about future war plans rather than current operations. The author insists he heard no such qualification, but if there has been a misunderstanding then we regret any confusion.



  7. Reminds me of the film Silmido, in which assorted gangsters are trained up to infiltrate the North and get at Kim Ii-sung in retaiation for their 68 commando raid on the Blue House. An army man speaks proudly and protestingly of how he has been to Pyongyang twenty times already, swimming most of the way. The North Korean state may be an army with a country but they don’t occupy every square foot. However, I’m inclined to believe the General merely omitted the hypothetical conditional from his utterance. That said, the present tense as hypothetical is a very confident form of expression and one might infer that such an operation may have been undertaken at least once.


  8. christine ahn/dprk official response: brigandish general tolley confirms suspicions of subversive capitalist plot to disrupt legitimate operations of a sovereign nation


  9. Feel sorry for David Axe: I think he told the truth, and is being punished for it. I remember reading an earlier report (and it wasn’t the defense news or blog reported above) where, as part of a request for new kit, the Sockor general had indicated there were incursions into the North. I thought “interesting” and “stupid” without realizing it was an unprecedented admission. But the reports that I recall reading were definitely based on the premise that we’ve done it, we intend to do it again, and we need better tools to do it with.

    And it’s the right thing to do. We need to know which of the artillery caves pointed at Seoul are occupied or not: we need to know if the Hwanggang Dam is fitted with explosive: we need to know the operation of the Nampo Barrage, and these are special forces’ areas of expertise.

    It was foolish of the brigadier to have spoken as he did: his fault, not the reporter’s. It won’t give the obstreperous NorKs anything except verbal diarrhoea if we call all forces home, but it does mean that all those investigatory incursions must stop for many months now because paranoia in the North will be increased for a while.


  10. S Korea sent commandos/agents into N Korea up until 70’s, maybe even 80’s. Many, or most should I say, did not return alive.

    Doubtful much useful work was done though. N Korea has been doing the same.



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