USFK Special Operation Commander’s slip of the tongue and what lies beneath

Originally posted on the July’s issue of Defense 21+ in Korean, I abridged the description of the event itself and focused on what the event means and implies.

At last, Brig. General Neil Tolley, USFK Special Operation Commander was fired after his slip of tongue that USFK was sending special operation forces to North Korea to spy on the NK’s underground military infrastructures. Details about what actually happened can be found on David Axe’s blog posts.

Where are you now, general?

My points about this happening are, firstly, is there a plan to send special forces to NK in case of contingencies? And secondly, annoyingly gruff manner of the public affairs office of USFK made things worse–and this wasn’t the first time.

Is there a plan to send special forces to NK?

Tim Shorrock, in an article posted on Foreign Policy In Focus, mentions the secret DIA report prepared in 1982. The subject of the report was SK Special Forces’ new wartime mission and the mission was to infiltrate “into the far northern provinces of North Korea near the Manchurian border.” This may be interesting to some readers, including myself, but his article is pointless and might be misleading. After all the rambling about the secret document, is his conclusion that anybody writing about U.S. Special Forces should look more deeply into the history of U.S.-Korea ties? Where is something that “may shed some light on a U.S. general’s outlandish claim?” Am I the only one who were expecting to be informed about a secret U.S. plan to send special forces to NK?

What the secret DIA report tells us is no more than how SK Special Forces were exploited politically to repress dissident citizens. The plan to insert two Special Forces brigades to the northern provinces of NK might have been put on to conceal its actual intention. It is not unreasonable to believe that there is a U.S. plan to put special forces to NK but his article tells nothing about it. A link-bait, I would say.

However, there was a secret reporting about sending special forces to NK. Not by the U.S. but SK. According to a military official, Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-jin surreptitiously reported on preparations for North Korean asymmetric threats to the President Lee in January last year. The preparations contain sending special forces to suppress North Korean missile sites and a review of the current strength of South Korean special forces, the source said.

Long before the rise of asymmetric threats, a consensus about Jus ad bellum, just cause for war was quite clear among the nations. Now the paradigm has been shifted and we perceive that from the controversies over preemptive war and, in recent times, Obama’s kill list. The line between preparedness and neurosis has never been thinner before.

We South Koreans still tend to think inside the old paradigm but the minister’s clandestine report shows us that even in SK, the paradigm has been shifted without any notices.

This wasn’t the first time the USFK PAO messed up

David Axe said, in his regret over the general’s firing, that the general “could have released a statement saying he had meant to speak hypothetically but was still quoted accurately” but he did only after having accused him of lying. Had he clarified his wording right after the report, he wouldn’t have given the audience an impression that he was fired because of his misleading words. This is definitely a failure of the public affairs office.

This wasn’t the first time the PAO caused a trouble. In last April, the defense correspondents’ association in SK, comprised of 25 media outlets, decided in its meeting to ask the USFK to change its authoritarian press guidelines.

The beginning of the discord was banning a reporter from The Korea Times from a press conference of Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. It seems that the underhand reason is that the reporter had turned down a PR team’s request to revise an interview article with an assistant chief of staff at the USFK. There was a serious distrust between the correspondents and the PR office at the USFK.

Stunning is that because of their distrust, defense correspondents decided to not change their misleading and exaggerated reports about the admiral’s comments. The reporter from The Korean Times was even considering write about the assistant chief of staff’s skepticism over SK’s push for defense reform, probably in revenge of the ban. Putting aside whether it’s ethical for journalists to refuse to correct their mischaracterized reports or to write in revenge, it is hard to say that the PAO is doing their job well.

The cases of the admiral and the brig. general are, basically, failures of media relations. On account of the rise of social media, even the slightest slip of the tongue stirs to the extent that history has never witnessed. The way military handles the media requires extreme care and swiftness nowadays and this is what I worry about the USFK.


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