Jeffrey LewisUS/ROK SOF in the DPRK?

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.


  1. Andy (History)

    For this to be true we’d have to believe the US is sending SOF into North Korea in order to collect marginally better order-of-battle data. The risk/reward of such a mission during peacetime is off the charts and made me very skeptical of this story from the beginning (to say nothing of the fact that a general would publicly say this is happening).

    You’re right that Axe is generally a pretty straightforward guy based on his work over the past six years or so, which I’ve followed off and on. The only potentially major screwup I can remember was an article about IED jammers in Iraq that got him booted off an embed. He’s also got a pretty transparent disdain for the US Air Force, but that’s irrelevant here.

    I do agree he made a mistake by not following-up. That kind of statement from a commanding General is, to quote VP Joe Biden, a pretty big effing deal.

  2. Jim (History)

    One rainy Saturday in the Camp Geiger library I read a book purportedly a true recollection of a Korea Marine who had been selected and trained to inflitrate China, meet up w/anti-Communist guerillas and (here comes the ACW hook) destroy Chinese (balistic?) missles hundreds of miles into the interior. Great story: firefights, strong, beautiful female resistence fighter, fathered a son. Really. Copyright/publishing date had to be prior 1983/4; seems like there is a long history of unverifible infiltrations.

  3. George William Herbert (History)

    (typing as Frontline’s documentary going into Yemen comes on…)

    There are some situations that might justify infiltration, primarily humint related. JSOC might well keep a plausibly deniable cadre of Korean-americans who, if captured, would be assumed to be South Koreans.

    The context here was clearly “in wartime” not right now. The reporting seems in error, not intentional. I think the only real story will be if the North Koreans go overboard over it.

  4. Adam Cathcart (History)

    As someone who has never attended a conference where Raytheon had a display booth, it has been hard for me to see much redeeming value in this whole episode. However, your essay helps quite a bit.

    One topic that surprisingly has not come up during this imbroglio (to my knowledge, anyway) is the subject of unmanned aerial drones which would presumably render moot the kind of commando drops described.

    My recollection is that North Korean propaganda seems rather agitated over their (pending?) use in Korea and had earlier asserted that US was sending or had sent drones along the Chinese-DPRK border. This technological advance is another one where I don’t believe China is keeping the DPRK up with the latest.

    I’m aware of the somewhat repetitive writing of Nick Turse on the subject of “drone wars” but haven’t seen an easily-digested overview of the relative drone capabilities, deployments, and public statements about drones as regards Northeast Asia and especially China-DPRK.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Unmanned aerial drones, like satellites, cannot see what is inside a tunnel. That’s the core of Tolley’s point. To know what North Korea is up to, or where to aim the JDAMs if we want to stop them, we really need someone who can masquerade as a North Korean laborer on a tunnel-repair crew, or maybe sneak around in the bushes up top and slip a fiber-optic borescope down an air vent.

      To some extent, doing this sort of thing in peacetime is a “legitimate” espionage activity, meaning illegal but everyone does it and it doesn’t start wars. But there are generally-accepted rules, and one of those rules is that you don’t kill people in the process. So sending “soldiers”, armed killers almost by definition, would be right out.

      Of course, there are generally-accepted rules, and there are North Korean rules. North Korean rules may well be, “It is perfectly fine for our espionage agents to kidnap foreign actresses to fill out Dear Leader’s harem, but any indication that foreign spies are trying to sneak pictures of our tunnels is casus belli!”. So, there’s something to pay attention to even if (as is most likely) this was just unfortunately ambiguous phrasing by Tolley.

      But, looking beyond North Korea, digging deep is a common response to an adversary having aerospace supremacy, and will become even more common in an era of pervasive drone warfare. Spies and commandos will not be put into retirement, and the fantasy that we can simply send aerial robots to police the world to our will, will not be realized.

  5. Walt Slocombe (History)

    Excellent post — and a lesson in the weight to be given to supposedly great revelations. A good motto is “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” What is potentially extraordinary about the story is a US general disclosing would would be a highly sensitive operation if it is happening. The most likely explanation is yours — he said, in effect, “just because satellites can’t identify hidden sites in NK does not mean we could not find out about them if we need to.”

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Axe, by his own admission, didn’t understand what an extraordinary claim this was. Thanks for the nice words.

    • JM (History)

      Question for Jeffrey:
      Where does Axe admit that he didn’t understand Tolley’s extraordinary claim?
      Question for anybody:
      Why would US/SKorea go to all this trouble to train/development equipment to peek into tunnels etc. if the peeking was to happen after trouble erupted? You want to know what your adversary is capable of now, which means SOF spy missions now, not later.
      Anyway, the SKorea press reported about 10 years ago on retired SKorea SOF veterans protesting inadequate pensions in front of the SKorea defense ministry. Articles quite clearly stated these vets had undertaken undercover post-Korean War missions into NKorea.

  6. Bill Andersoot (History)

    David Axe’s biggest mistake was his decision to sensationalize the comment instead of simply reporting the story as a professional. Axe’s piece begins: “U.S. Special Forces have been parachuting into North Korea to spy on Pyongyang’s extensive network of underground military facilities.” Oh, really? I didn’t see the word parachutes used in Tolley’s comment. Axe should have gone with rocket-powered jet skis. Parachutes are so 20th Century.

    • David Axe (History)


      Tolley used the word “leap” to describe the infiltration technique. I understood that to mean parachuting — as in a HALO jump.


      David Axe

  7. bob (History)

    Nobody seems to have picked up on BG Tolley’s words, as reported by AP’s Kimberly Dozier :-

    “We used to do it in the 80s in Europe. It’s roughly the same kind of thing.”

    Now, if accurately reported by AP, this is clearly past tense referring to actual actions that happened.

    Jeffery explains this as follows:-

    ” ~ 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. ”

    I can understand BG Tolly’s words:- “we send ROK soldiers, Koreans, to the north, and U.S. soldiers, to do the old special reconnaissance mission” as present-tense-as-future-tense-in-time-of-war, (emphasis on in-time-of-war), however this was immediately followed by past tense references to actions in Europe in the 1980s.

    When using present tense as future tense, the past tense just does not suddenly become conditional – “We used to do it in the 80s in Europe” is clear.

    So, how old is Tolly? When did he enlist? Where was his unit based in the 1980s?

    Are there any references in the “literature” to Europe?

    • Jon Hendry (History)

      “When using present tense as future tense, the past tense just does not suddenly become conditional – “We used to do it in the 80s in Europe” is clear.”

      I assume the “it” in that sentence refers to the planning, not the infiltration.

      ie, “We used to do similar planning for wartime infiltration in the 80s in Europe”

  8. @FHeisbourg (History)

    1)Untill the fall of the Wall, US, British and French military liaison teams did it constantly (and sometimes with substantial risk) in EastGermany (as did equivalent Soviet teams in West Germany). East Germany was where the bulk of the Soviet first and second echelon forces were based.

    2)I note that Tolly says two, possibly different, things: -“we send ROK soldiers, Koreans, to the north…”;
    -“we send…US soldiers to do the old special reconnaissance mission”(whatever that means). But maybe, I parse too much!
    Overall, I concur with Walt’s common-sense comment.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Do you mean outside of the activities of the Military Liaison Missions?

    • jim (History)


      Your point 1) — I assume your “great risk” refers to the fatal shooting of Army Cpt. Nicholson. See

    • Andy (History)

      “Special reconnaissance” is a specific technical term – it’s doctrinally one of the core tasks for US special operations forces. It’s defined as: “Reconnaissance and surveillance actions conducted as a special operation in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to collect or verify information of strategic or operational significance, employing military capabilities not normally found in conventional forces. Also called SR.”

    • Jeffrey (History)

      It is also worth noting that DOD started to use “special reconnaissance” in the mid-1990s in a counterproliferation context, as SOCOM was given primary responsibility for counterproliferation. (Here is a nice write up in AFJI.)

      This is a whole other post that I’ve though about writing even since Hugh Shelton claimed, I continue to think erroneously, that SOF teams disabled an “illegal weapon” in transit from North Korea to either Iran or Iraq.

      “We had been notified by the CIA that a ship coming out of North korea would be going through the Panama Canal with an illegal weapon on
      board, and we were greatly concerned that this weapon might get into either Iranian or Iraqi hands. The agent was not sure which of those
      two countries it was headed for. This was a case where he had everything else just right and we had confirmed that the ship was on
      the exact course he had predicted.

      It was a very time-sensitive mission in which a specific SEAL Team Six component was called into action. While I cannot get into the
      tactical elements or the operational details of the mission, what I can say i that our guys were able to “immobilize” the weapon system in
      a special way without leaving any trace.

      It was a successful operation that went off without a hitch.”

      The “we” here refers to Shelton’s tenure SOCOM — so the incident occurred between February 1996-September 1997.

      Some of the press reporting assumed that the “illegal weapon” referred to a nuclear warhead, though a missile or more missile component is far more likely. Although the event is alleged to have occurred during an observed lull in DPRK ballistic missile exports, the timing is right for an alleged March-April 1996 transfer from North Korea to Egypt. (See: Bill Gertz, “Cairo’s missile buys violate U.S. laws; North Korea sold Scuds, CIA says,” The Washington Times, 21 June 1996.) Shelton later refers to a “hypothetical” scenario in which the DPRK ships a “non-UN compliant missile” through the Panama Canal to Libya as the sort of information contained in the President’s Daily Brief.

      But why would North Korea send it through the Panama Canal?

      I suppose one option is that Shelton has confused an exercise with the real thing. In the mid-1990s, SOCOM stood up a counterproliferation capability with five or six exercises a year, including ones that look a lot like his story.

      Others have noticed a number of little inconsistencies in Shelton’s memoir: “For example, he tells of a return flight from Vietnam to Oakland, Ca on Christmas Eve of 68. Then goes on to say that he arrived home on Christmas Day of 69. Okay, small typo. No problem, except there are
      numerous others. Example, he completes War College in 1983 and before his PCS to Fort Lewis, he stay’s in DC and works with the personnel
      folks. In Oct 83, he speaks of using PowerPoint to present his recommendations to the general in charge. Only one small problem. PowerPoint wasn’t invented until 1984 and then it was only used on MAC’s not PC’s, initially. Oops, another small oversight.”

      Shelton notes in the introduction that “The data in this book has come primarily from memory.” As I said to one colleague, this is just Grandpa Hugh telling stories on his back porch. Caveat emptor.

      Anyway, one of things that became very clear when I went down this rabbit hole is the SOCOM was creating precisely the sort of capabilities against underground facilities that Tolley described. Here is how Shelton himself described it to the Fayetteville Observer:

      Shelton ‘s forces are developing the capability to locate, detect and classify such systems. They also are developing special techniques to gain access to such systems once they find them. They are also finding ways to disarm and destroy such weapons.

      Troops dealing with nuclear devices have to know what kind of device it is and where they can use a charge to destroy it without producing secondary effects, Shelton said. They also should know how to move it safely, he said. Those weapons are stored underground in some countries, he said.

      “That has special requirements in itself ranging from how to get into the facility and to how you can operate in that kind of environment,” Shelton said.

      Here is the full-text of the story about Shelton:

      Fayetteville Observer, The (NC) – Thursday, February 13, 1997
      Author: Henry Cuningham, Military editor

      By Henry Cuningham

      Military editor

      The newest mission of the military’s special operations forces is dealing with the threat of “weapons of mass destruction” such as nuclear , chemical and biological devices.

      “I think as the world watched on CNN, and they saw the United States make short work of Iraq, they said, ‘We really don’t really want to take these guys on — not in a conventional role,'” Gen. Hugh Shelton said.

      But small countries, insurgents and terrorists can strike against the United States in ways other than large formations of troops and tanks.

      “So it appears that now what we will face more and more is terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, which is the newest mission we’ve got on our plate,” the four-star general said.

      Shelton , a former Fort Bragg commander, is the leader of U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base at Tampa, Fla.

      His command oversees Maj. Gen. Michael A. Canavan’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and Lt. Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker’s U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg. The other elements include Navy SEALs — Sea-Air-Land commandos — and Air Force special operations crews.

      Shelton said his command has the premier forces for fighting emerging threats that probably will be the greatest cause for concern in the 21st century.

      JSOC can send out small teams that are especially designed for each task and count on speed, surprise, deception and fine-tuned skills for surgical strikes. Those forces are tailored for fighting terrorists, rescuing hostages and command strikes.

      The Army Special Operations Command has Special Forces, civil affairs and psychological operations units that specialize in the languages and cultures of geographic areas of the world. They can train foreign forces in their own language, do mass communications in foreign countries or work with civilian authorities.

      Each of the military’s five theater commanders has a Special Operations Commander who furnishes the expertise to use those forces. Some of Shelton ‘s forces also are designed, equipped and organized to deploy within four hours of notification.

      Shelton and other supporters of special operations forces say troops like those will be more applicable to future problems that probably will more likely involve tribal, ethnic and nationalistic conflicts than large-scale military maneuvers.

      In May 1995, then-Defense Secretary William Perry told U.S. Special Operations Command to take the lead in developing the capability to deal with weapons of mass destruction — or WMDs as they are now sometimes known by the military.

      The efforts span from the Defense Department to the State Department, the Energy Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Shelton said.

      Shelton ‘s forces are developing the capability to locate, detect and classify such systems. They also are developing special techniques to gain access to such systems once they find them. They are also finding ways to disarm and destroy such weapons.

      Troops dealing with nuclear devices have to know what kind of device it is and where they can use a charge to destroy it without producing secondary effects, Shelton said. They also should know how to move it safely, he said. Those weapons are stored underground in some countries, he said.

      “That has special requirements in itself ranging from how to get into the facility and to how you can operate in that kind of environment,” Shelton said.

      “So we have programs to work with the other services, to work with the national labs to develop our capabilities in that area.”

  9. Greg Meehan (History)

    David Axe DID get tossed under the bus, that’s for sure. But what’s important here is that he spent the time clearly documenting his notes and responding calmly with FACT to the shit-storm. He did more than I’ve seen others do.

    I’ve read David for years and agree with how he responded to this, (on the one caveat in agreement with the article that he should have called to verify the comment.)

    I mean, hey.. He wasn’t kicking sand in front of a camera to simulate a dust storm.. 🙂

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I’d like to know who decided to suck it up and admit that Tolley had just chosen his words poorly. It was the right thing to do, but it still took a moral compass and a bit of courage. I hasten to add that I hope this entire episode is soon forgotten, with no adverse impacts for Axe or Tolley.

  10. Jon Hendry (History)

    “Axe probably also didn’t appreciate the sensitivity of the subject. ”

    This baffles me. Didn’t North Korea shell a South Korean island (with lots of civilians on it) not long ago? Isn’t it likely that they sank a South Korean ship?

    It doesn’t seem like it would require much awareness of the situation to grasp how touchy it would be. We may infiltrate other countries, but if I’m not mistaken, those countries generally aren’t in artillery range of large US ally population centers and/or military bases.

    Perhaps a forest/trees situation?

  11. Roger Cavazos (History)

    To give a little more context as to why this was such a big deal, here are some thoughts on what it would have taken to make this a reality. If he’s speaking to DARPA/IARPA – like folks, someone has to translate these thoughts from concept to working “widget”. I posted some of the “whiz bang” stuff (was/would have been / pick a verb tense appropriate for obsfucation) needed to infiltrate, reconnoiter, sustain and exfiltrate.

  12. @FHeisbourg (History)

    Am late answering questions to my post, due to flight to ShangriLa Dialogue:
    – the MMLs were primarily engaged in intel gathering; liaison became a euphemism
    -one of the French nco’s was killed in a targetted truck ‘accident’ during the Seventies