Why Would the U.S. Parachute into North Korea?

Why Would the U.S. Parachute into North Korea?

U.S. military officials are scrambling to dismiss a report that U.S. Special Forces have been parachuting into North Korea to gather intelligence about the regime's underground tunnels. The original report in the Japan-based foreign affairs magazine The Diplomat went viral today for the obvious reason that infiltrating one of the most restricted and hostile regimes in the world via parachutes makes for a fascinating story. The push-back from U.S. officials that followed argues that the premise of the story is false because knowledge of North Korea's underground tunnel network is ubiquitous already. But would such intelligence really be so useless?

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The meat of The Diplomat's story stems from remarks made by Brig. Gen. Neil Tolley, the head of American special operations forces in South Korea, during an industry conference held in Tampa last week. "The entire tunnel infrastructure is hidden from our satellites," Tolley was quoted as saying. "So we send (South Korean) soldiers and US soldiers to the North to do special reconnaissance." The commandos allegedly swooped in with minimal supplies to collect intelligence about the tunnels undetected. "After 50 years, we still don't know much about the capability and full extent" of the underground facilities, he allegedly said.

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After being picked up by The Telegraph, The Drudge Report and several other news sites, the story circulated quickly and invited criticisms on Twitter from current and former military personnel. "He really doesn't want to make Major General, does he?" tweeted Navy veteran Robert Caruso, referring to the alleged leaker. "Way to[o] much talk in O admin- no loose lips," tweeted William Spincola. 

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Pushing back, U.S. Forces Korea spokesman Col. Jonathan Withington issued a statement denying the covert missions and saying the U.S. has known about North Korea's tunnel complex for years. "No U.S. or [Republic of Korea] forces have parachuted into North Korea," he said. "The use of tunnels in North Korea is well documented. Several of the known tunnels along the DMZ are visited by tourists every day." He added that Tolley's remarks were taken "completely out of context" and in some cases "made up." The Diplomat, meanwhile issued an unusual sort of clarification today:

While the author strongly disputes the contention that any quote was fabricated, we acknowledge the possibility that Brig. Gen. Tolley was speaking hypothetically, about future war plans rather than current operations. The author insists he heard no such qualification, but if there has been a misunderstanding then we regret any confusion.

It's not quite, "we stand by our story" and it's also not quite "we made a mistake." Regardless, is it plausible that the U.S. military could gain a lot of intelligence from such a mission?

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According to GlobalSecurty.org, an online database of military information, North Korea's tunnels have been a source of intrigue for decades. In 1974, after a South Korean military squad discovered "steam rising from the ground" it uncovered an underground tunnel, which triggered machine gun fire from a North Korean guard post. Since then, South Korea has found at least four tunnels stretching through the DMZ that were dug up by North Korea, which were believed to have been intended for a military invasion from the north.  

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But like Col. Withington said today, some of the north's tunnels have become the country's worst kept secret and are open to visitors. For instance, to the left is an image of North Korea's 4th infiltration tunnel. While it does seem implausible that Special Forces would risk their lives to collect intelligence about this kind of tunneling, there certainly has been other tunneling activities reported in North Korea that have warranted attention. As NBC News (and wire services) reported in April ahead of North Korea's failed long-range rocket launch, one particular tunneling effort raised a number of red flags:

Recent satellite images show North Korea is digging a new underground tunnel in what appears to be preparation for a third nuclear test, according to South Korean intelligence officials.

The excavation at North Korea's northeast Punggye-ri site, where nuclear tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009, is in its final stages, according to a report by intelligence officials that was shared Monday with The Associated Press ... 

Dirt believed to have been brought from other areas is piled at the tunnel entrance, the report said, something experts say is needed to fill up underground tunnels before a nuclear test. The dirt indicates a "high possibility" North Korea will stage a nuclear test, the report said, as plugging tunnels was the final step taken during its two previous nuclear tests.

Obviously, there's nothing to suggest that this bit of tunneling is being targeted by the CIA or Pentagon. Though, one would think, it would be at least of interest to U.S. officials and allies in the Pacific. A video report from the initial tunneling revelations can be found here.