SEOUL - Earlier this week, a U.S. Army Brigadier General Neil Tolley stirred controversy this week with comments about American and South Korean military operations in North Korea. On Wednesday, General Tolley said he had been unclear in his comments about possible U.S. operations, and said that "at no time have we sent special operations forces into North Korea."
There are concerns about the ramifications of what the leader of the U.S. special operations command in South Korea said at a panel discussion in Tampa, Florida, on May 22.
Brigadier General Neil Tolley, to an audience of hundreds of people at the Special Operations Forces Industry conference, discussed the challenges the United States faces determining what is inside North Korea's many secret tunnels.
Freelance combat reporter and technology writer David Axe was among those listening to the general.
"He was describing the utility of human intelligence on the ground in North Korea. He was describing it as though it were actually happening right now," said Axe. "He since has walked that back to say that he was speaking hypothetically, although he didn't say at the time he was speaking hypothetically."
Another person who attended the panel discussion said he heard the same thing and a partial transcript corroborates Axe’s recollection.
“Without going into too much detail on our war plans, we send ROK [South Korean] soldiers, Koreans, to the North and U.S. soldiers, to do the old special reconnaissance mission" Tolley said during the discussion. "We used to do it in the 80's in Europe. It’s roughly the same kind of thing.”
If true, such cross-border operations would be a violation of the 1953 armistice that brought to a halt the three-year Korean War. Still, Axe says he did not realize the apparent significance of the general's remark at the time he wrote his story.
"I thought it was interesting. I hadn't heard that before, but I wasn't shocked by it because I've encountered U.S. special forces all over the world, in some places where their presence is not widely known or known publicly at all. It seemed kind of obvious they would be in North Korea," he stated.
Axe's report was published on Monday by the Japan-based online publication The Diplomat. In it, he also asserted U.S. special forces were “parachuting” into North Korea to spy on extensive underground military facilities. It prompted an unequivocal denial from U.S. Forces Korea, which insisted the quote was “made up."
The Diplomat then pulled Axe's blog post, acknowledging the possibility that the general was speaking about future war plans, not current operations.
Pentagon spokesman George Little reiterated to reporters at Tuesday's regular briefing that General Tolley was misquoted.
"My understanding is that the general's comments were contorted, distorted, misreported and that there is in no way any substance to the assertion," Little stated. "Again, that was misreported that there are U.S. boots on the ground in North Korea. That is simply incorrect."
North Korea has repeatedly violated the terms of the truce, over the years. The North sent commandos into South Korea repeatedly in decades past, with sometimes tragic consequences for both the infiltrators and South Korean civilians.
There are far fewer reports of violations from the South Korean or American side. In February of this year, during a defense committee hearing, a member of South Korea's National Assembly, Lee Jin-sam, made a stunning revelation. Lee claimed that in 1967 he was part of a secret mission that infiltrated the North, killing 33 enemy soldiers and sabotaging dozens of facilities.
The Kookmin Daily newspaper quotes a defense ministry official saying South Korean forces have not been involved in any such operations since 1972.
But a spokesman for the defense ministry in Seoul who handles international media inquiries says he cannot confirm that information.
A U.S. military veteran has written of his participation in five secret Marine Corps missions after the armistice to find and rescue fellow service members still held by the North Koreans. In the book, The Untold Experiences of a Navy Corpsman, C. Gilbert Lowery claims U.S. Marine reconnaissance patrol teams in the North freed 26 prisoners of war.
General Tolley's comment last week raised speculation about whether contemporary U.S. special forces covertly infiltrate the North. Most analysts consider that highly implausible because of the great risks of such missions compared to their scant potential intelligence gains.
Nevertheless some Asia watchers, such as Chris Nelson of Samuels International Associates, are expressing concern. Writing in his influential Nelson Report he accuses Tolley of “proving the adage 'loose lips sink ships...this time with potentially deadly consequences.”
Nelson worries that the comment - even if it was a hypothetical - could be used by North Korea's leadership “grasping at any excuse for some kind of military 'response'” to perceived American and South Korean provocations.
At his home in South Carolina, reporter Axe says this is one story he no longer cares to pursue.
"I'm bewildered and I regret diving into waters that are far deeper than I had ever imagined," he said.
Axe says he has resigned as a contributor to the online publication which carried his controversial blog post.