Spying on the North
The United States and its South Korean ally have been trying to acquire human intelligence about North Korea for decades.
It started out as a routine briefing at a conference in Florida on U.S. special operations. One of the panelists, Army Brigadier General Neil Tolley, was talking about the importance of human intelligence in North Korea. A reporter, David Axe, dutifully wrote down Tolley’s comments and published his article in late May in The Diplomat, a foreign policy publication based in Tokyo. The article, quoting Tolley, claimed that U.S. Special Forces were already gathering human intelligence in North Korea.
“U.S. Special Forces have been parachuting into North Korea to spy on Pyongyang’s extensive network of underground military facilities,” wrote Axe. “That surprising disclosure, by a top U.S. commando officer, is a reminder of America’s continuing involvement in the ‘cold war’ on the Korean peninsula — and of North Korea’s extensive preparations for the conflict to turn hot.”
It was indeed a surprising disclosure, since Special Forces operations inside North Korea would, after all, constitute an act of war. Less surprising was the response from the Army. It immediately responded that it was doing no such thing and that the general had been misquoted.
The reporter went back to his notes. Tolley had given detailed descriptions of these operations in North Korea. And he had spoken in the present tense.
Then the general in question weighed in and admitted that in fact he had not been misquoted. He had been speaking in the present tense, but his remarks had been hypothetical. "In my attempt to explain where technology could help us, I spoke in the present tense,” Tolley said. “I realize I wasn't clear in how I presented my remarks, leaving the opportunity for some in the audience to draw the wrong conclusions. To be clear, at no time have we sent special operations forces into North Korea."
The reporter was happy to be vindicated by the general’s disclosure. “I’m relieved to hear the military say we’re not sending troops into North Korea,” Axe wrote in an update on his blog. “Some observers wonder how I could ever believe that we had — after all, that would be an act of war. Yes, but we routinely strike military and terror targets in foreign countries in ways that could be construed as acts of war.”
Although Tolley was speaking hypothetically, the United States has indeed broken laws and crossed boundaries in its military missions around the world. Not only has the United States crossed the line in many countries with its drone strikes and Special Forces incursions, it has pushed the envelope with North Korea as well in its attempts to acquire intelligence about the secretive country
Of course, U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts to pierce the secrecy of North Korea have certain limits. Satellites provide detailed surveillance of what’s happening at missile test sites, but there are problems with resolution, weather conditions, and scope (for instance, an inability to see underground). Defectors provide information, but the time lag is significant. North Korea complains routinely about U.S. reconnaissance flights that violate its air space. It shot down an EC-121 in 1969, at which time the U.S. government admitted that it had already conducted a couple hundred missions along North Korea’s east coast that year. In 2003, another reconnaissance plane crashed in South Korea. It’s likely that such reconnaissance is routine. But direct overflight of North Korea is risky.
A former U.S. government official once told me off the record that Washington indeed had human intelligence inside North Korea in the early 1990s. He didn’t provide details. In 2004, according to USA Today, CIA director Porter Goss instructed his chief of spy missions to pursue more aggressive insertions of spies into hostile governments such as Iran and North Korea. Since this information is classified, we may not know for a long time about such operations.
The United States has also relied on the information gathered by its ally, South Korea, from the network of spies that it ran in North Korea. These bukpagongjakwon formed an elite Army Intelligence Unit tasked with intelligence-gathering, infiltration, and even assassination. North Korea’s incursions in South Korea are well-known: the attack on the Blue House in 1968, the submarine that ran aground in 1996, the numerous spies that have infiltrated South Korean society. But South Korea’s missions have been no less extensive and audacious. One infamous group of ex-cons, trained on Shilmido to assassinate Kim Il Sung in the wake of the 1968 Blue House incursion, revolted against their guard-trainers and made their way to Seoul to petition the president. None survived, and the incident was suppressed. Only part of this story was told in the 2003 film Shilmido.
If the South Korean government took care of these agents, their existence might remain largely unknown. But angry at being ignored and mistreated by their own government, the former spies demanded compensation for their efforts. Information gradually leaked out. According to a National Assembly report, more than 13,000 agents worked on intelligence-gathering in the North. By 1972, more than 7,000 were casualties of the program: 300 confirmed dead, 4,849 missing in action, 203 injured, 130 captured, and more than 2,000 agents assigned to a mysterious “etc” category.
The infiltration program reportedly ended in the 1980s though training continued until the 1990s.
So, yes, the notion of going to extreme lengths to collect human intelligence and conduct operations in North Korea itself is not so far-fetched. According to the Pentagon’s Operational Plan 5020, made public in 2003, U.S. commanders were to prepare for conflict with the North by conducting maneuvers around the country’s borders and “sow confusion” within the North Korean military. From the Pentagon’s perspective, it is not only useful to try to insert spies into North Korea but to have North Korea believe that spies are constantly in its midst.
U.S. actions in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, as David Axe argued, have already established a contemporary U.S. pattern of violating borders, inserting Special Operations forces, and assassinating individuals in conflicts that do not formally involve the United States in a declared war. North Korea’s nuclear weapons and still formidable artillery positions have generally prevented the United States from applying this model north of the DMZ.
Nevertheless, the U.S. government is very concerned about North Korea today. The country possesses an unknown amount of nuclear material. It is ruled by a young and comparatively inexperienced leader. It is economically fragile. The line between monitoring a country’s potential disintegration and facilitating regime collapse can be a very thin one. We remain in the dark about so many things pertaining to North Korea. But we would be wise to err on the side of caution in trying to illuminate that darkness.
Update: The Pentagon recently announced that it will be replacing Army Brigadier General Neil Tolley as the commanding general of the Special Operations Command Korea.