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Are there U.S. special ops inside North Korea?

On Monday, U.S. blogger David Axe quoted Brig. Gen. Neil Tolley as saying that U.S. special forces parachute into North Korea in order to spy on Pyongyang’s underground military facilities. The U.S. military cannot see North Korea’s extensive tunnel infrastructure, which include "20 partially subterranean airfields, thousands of underground artillery positions" and at least four ...

WALLY SANTANA/AFP/Getty Images
WALLY SANTANA/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, U.S. blogger David Axe quoted Brig. Gen. Neil Tolley as saying that U.S. special forces parachute into North Korea in order to spy on Pyongyang’s underground military facilities. The U.S. military cannot see North Korea’s extensive tunnel infrastructure, which include "20 partially subterranean airfields, thousands of underground artillery positions" and at least four tunnels underneath the De-Militarized Zone that separates the two Koreas, so "we send [Republic of Korea] soldiers and U.S. soldiers to the North to do special reconnaissance," Axis quoted Tolley as saying.

Because South Korea remains technically at war with North Korea (they signed an armistice, not a treaty), because there appear (though please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong about this) to have been no revealed  secret operations inside North Korea’s territory since the end of the Korean War in 1953, and because it’s extremely and unsurprisingly rare for generals to discuss secret operations, this quickly became, to quote arms control blogger Jeffery Lewis’ helpful post on the subject, "an unholy shitstorm."

After the story was published, the U.S. Military aggressively denied it, saying that "Quotes have been made up and attributed" to Tolley.  A day later, Tolley, to his credit, said that "he was accurately quoted" but was speaking hypothetically about what could be helpful in the future. He added, "To be clear, at no time have we sent special operations forces into North Korea."

So has the U.S. sent special forces inside North Korea at any point over the past sixty years, and does it have any there now? Despite North Korea’s well-deserved reputation as the world’s most closed society, one imagines that the U.S., at some point, has had boots on the ground. Lewis mentions a partially declassified 1976 discussion between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Ford administration officials about whether to deploy a special forces to team to blow up a North Korean fuel depot. It seems extremely unlikely that there are currently reconnaissance missions involving Americans in North Korean territory, and if there were, one imagines this little kerfuffle would have ended their missions.

North Korea’s secrecy extends beyond the actions of its own people. It’s possible (I don’t want to go too deep into conspiracy theory here), that the United States has retaliated against the DPRK, but whichever Kim was then in power decided not to publicize the incident so as not to embarrass himself or the military. I spoke last year to an academic involved in Korean affairs who told me that after the North’s bombing of the Cheonan, South Korean generals debated, but decided against, blowing up a major statue of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang; one can imagine that if North Korea so decided, it could hide a major explosion to save itself the embarrassment.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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