News / Asia

Controversy Follows Comments on Military Operations in N. Korea

x
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.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

You May Like

US Gives Malaysia Questionable Upgrade in Human Trafficking Ranks

Malaysia’s upgrade seen as removing barrier to country’s participation in the US-led 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership More

Turkey, US Try to Establish Buffer Despite Differences

Coalition airstrikes in proposed zone would aim to drive out Islamic extremists, allowing targeted area to come under sway of anti-Assad rebels More

Video US: Millions Exploited by Vast Fortunes of Human Trafficking

State Department's annual report calls exploitation 'modern slavery,' brutalizing girls, women into prostitution and forcing men, women and children into low-wage jobs across the globe More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Wini
X
July 28, 2015 12:21 AM
The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Obama Encourages Kenya to Fix Cultures of Corruption, Discrimination

President Barack Obama bid farewell to Kenya Sunday with a major speech at as stadium outside the capital Nairobi where he called on Kenyans to change the cultures of corruption and discrimination that can hold society back. VOA East Africa Correspondent Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video California Towns Welcome Special Olympics Athletes

Cities and towns in Southern California are greeting thousands of athletes who are arriving for Special Olympics, a competition for people with intellectual disabilities. The games will run from July 25th through August 2nd. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, where athletes from Namibia, Singapore and Tanzania got a rousing welcome from local residents.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.
Video

Video Hoverbike Flying Toward Reality

Another long-standing dream of many technological inventors is quickly approaching reality: U.S.- and British-based firms are cooperating in the development of an individual flying platform they call a hoverbike. They say it may revolutionize the concept of flying, including in the U.S. military. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video As Japan Expands Defense Role, Protests Follow

The Japanese government is moving forward with a controversial security bill that would authorize the military to fight abroad for the first time since World War II. Leaders say it is critical to defend against rising threats from China and North Korea. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Japan on the big changes ahead, and the opposition they are drawing.
Video

Video Replacing Poppies with Coffee in Myanmar

The remote mountains of Myanmar’s Shan state are home to the second-largest opium-producing region in the world. After a drop during the 2000s, production surged in the past eight years to feed an increasing demand for heroin in China. But farmers are now making less on the crop, and the U.N. is hoping many will make the switch to growing coffee. Daniel de Carteret reports for VOA from Taunggyi.

VOA Blogs