A tall tale about U.S. commandos parachuting into North Korea

Here’s how the story began yesterday.

Reporting for The Diplomat, David Axe wrote: U.S. Special Forces have been parachuting into North Korea to spy on Pyongyang’s extensive network of underground military facilities. 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 turning hot.

In the decades since the end of the Korean War, Pyongyang has constructed thousands of tunnels, Army Brig. Gen. Neil Tolley, commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces in South Korea, said at a conference in Florida last week. Tolley said the tunnels include 20 partially subterranean airfields, thousands of underground artillery positions and at least four tunnels underneath the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas. “We don’t know how many we don’t know about,” Tolley said.

“The entire tunnel infrastructure is hidden from our satellites,” Tolley added. “So we send [Republic of Korea] soldiers and U.S. soldiers to the North to do special reconnaissance.” Tolley said the commandos parachute in with minimal supplies in order to watch the tunnels without being detected themselves.

U.S. forces on the ground north of the DMZ conducting clandestine operations — that’s what I’d call a major story, so why isn’t this headline news in all the major newspapers?

It’s unfortunate that one of the effects of the justifiable cynicism that a lot of people have about the mainstream media is that if it ignores a story then that sometimes boosts the credibility of the story. The problem is, this overlooks the more obvious explanation as to why many stories get ignored: they aren’t true.

In this instance, a number of outlets opted for the cheap headline: add the caveat “report” to a story that otherwise sounded hard to believe.

The Diplomat has now posted this clarification and pulled down the original story:

In response to the controversy that has attended yesterday’s story on North Korea, The Diplomat has sought corroboration. 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.

Voice of America reports:

The author of the report in The Diplomat, David Axe, rejected suggestions he fabricated the quotes attributed to the general. He said if the general was speaking hypothetically, “he did not say so” and that “he spoke in the present tense” and “at length.”

Sorry, but a report shouldn’t run just because the reporter is confident about the grammatical accuracy of his note-taking. Even if the general said in the present tense that U.S. special forces were being sent into North Korea, this statement demanded some follow-up questions and corroboration. Too often, journalists end up chasing quotes instead of gathering facts.

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