‘Some People Have To Get Killed’: CIA Operations during the Korean War

You’re a Korean refugee on an island in the Pacific Ocean. A shadowy American tells you that you’re going to be trained to infiltrate Communist-controlled Korea. Technicians teach you basic survival skills–albeit through an interpreter since he can’t speak Korean–and assign you to codenamed teams [White Tiger, Yellow Dragon]. A short time later, you’re parachuting in the darkness over enemy territory and if the briefing intelligence holds true, you can expect to lead guerrillas and resistance groups against the Communists. Underlying this operation though is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Falsified intelligence, poor preparation, and administrative failures lead to your capture, interrogation, and likely death. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted numerous paramilitary operations on the Korean peninsula during the Korean War (1950-1953) and the majority ended in failure. Contemporary analysts and modern historians agree that the CIA’s first ‘hot war’ was not its finest hour.

The CIA was only three years old by the outbreak of the Korean War. The National Security Act of 1947 established the agency and the National Security Council, all with the goal of enhancing the United States’ international security. With eyes on the U.S. leading the post-war world, the CIA needed to act. Sources inside North Korea and China were severely limited however. Much of the agency’s personnel and financial resources were centered on Europe, believing that was the more imminent Communist threat. Any high level information from the Far East was procured by South Korean President Syngman Rhee or the Chiang Kai-shek regime and was at best, marginally truthful. Old State Department files provided additional, albeit outdated, information. The lack of intelligence officers and sources in Korea left the U.S. perilously unprepared for the North Korean invasion. Gen. Douglas MacArthur stonewalled the agency from conducting paramilitary operations, but the Director of Central Intelligence, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith (a decorated WWII general who served as Gen. Eisenhower’s chief-of-staff) directed agents to provide tactical intelligence to UN forces. A special group within the Office of Reports and Estimates focused solely on Korea as a way to increase the agency’s analysis. What followed however were a series of intelligence failures that embarrassed the agency.

Hundred of CIA agents and trained guerrillas were parachuted into North Korea, but many were captured within days of landing. Hundreds of operatives were tortured and executed by the Communists (photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985, ca. 1951)

The first was the agency’s assessment of Chinese intervention. In an dispatch to President Truman and General MacArthur’s Wake Island conference, the CIA argued that the Chinese would not attack the Korean peninsula. Two sources inside the Tokyo station disagreed however, claiming that hundreds of thousands of enemy troops were poised to cross the Yalu River. These reports were ignored and when the Chinese launched their assaults in November 1950, Bedell Smith was stunned. Having misread the enemy, the CIA needed to re-prioritize its operations and intelligence analysis. Deputy Director of Plans, Allen Dulles (future Director of Central Intelligence) and Smith quarreled over the effectiveness of covert missions. In declassified documents from 2002, Smith received vague and circular answers from his deputies on the status of overseas operations. This opaqueness resulted in unending frustration that plagued the CIA’s role in the Korean War. Most paramilitary operations were described as, “not only ineffective but probably morally reprehensible in the number of lives lost.” Peter Sichel, the Hong Kong station chief described these efforts as “… suicidal and irresponsible. They were sent to supply nonexistent or fictitious resistance groups.” As events on the battlefield transpired, the agency explored options in gathering solid intelligence and inserting moles into the Communist bloc.

Frank Wisner, chief of covert operations, was a giant in the early days of the CIA. Having conducted numerous operations in Europe, he embarked on a similar approach to Korea. Pitching millions of dollars to creating an agent training center in Saipan, many of the same lessons taught by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WWII were applied in Korea. A problem however was the lack of geographical, historical, and economic information available to the deployed officers. The Eurocentric focus left many ill-suited on Far Eastern scenarios. Tim Weiner, a CIA historian, writes that this deficiency had bloody consequences for the agency:

These men [CIA agents] were thrown into battle with little preparation or training. One among them was Donald Gregg, fresh out of Williams College. His first thought when the war broke out was ‘where the hell is Korea?’…. Gregg took tough Korean farm boys plucked from refugee camps, brave but undisciplined men who spoke no English, and tried to turn them into instant American intelligence agents. The CIA sent them on crudely conceived missions that produced little save a lengthening roster of lost lives.

Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, p. 55

The world of covert intelligence gathering and operations requires a high level of scrutiny to determine the accuracy of information. Checking the validity of sources and having reliable contacts are pillars in making judgements for operations. In Korea though, fabricated reports and outright lies were commonplace. Enterprising men who approached agency officers with ‘insider information’ were later revealed to have been con men trying to insert themselves into the Rhee regime or CIA payroll.

DCI Smith (left) and President Truman (right) discussing over a large globe. DCI Smith was seen as an innovator who modernized the CIA, but operational and intelligence failures in Korea plagued him constantly during his tenure (Image courtesy of the CIA, circa 1950-1953)

One notable example involving the fabricated intelligence deception occurred with the activities of three brigades under OSS veteran Hans Tofte. Between April 1951 and September 1952, thousands of Korean exiles were dropped into North Korea with missions to serve as intelligence gathering teams, carry out guerrilla warfare tactics, and rescue captured American pilots. Hundreds of these exiles were captured and executed, but those who survived were sending back a flood of radio traffic detailing Communist operations. To the Seoul CIA station chief, Albert Haney, these operative were making progress by leaps and bounds. Providing valuable intelligence that could change the course of the war. Many of these reports became too fantastic to believe and Haney’s successor, John Hart, thoroughly reviewed these reports. It was odd that despite having two hundred officers in Seoul, no one spoke Korean. What Hart discovered was that nearly all Korean operatives were actually feeding manufactured intelligence supplied by the North Koreans and Chinese. Another large portion were outright lies by operatives themselves. This intelligence had already been passed up the chain of command and used as a foundation for covert and military operations, but it was faulty from the start. The damage was done and irreparable. But how to emerge from this debacle without publicly tarnishing the CIA?

Deputy Director of Intelligence, Loftus Becker, was sent to assess the Seoul station’s ability to conduct uncompromising intelligence gathering, but quickly concluded that enemy penetration was too easy. No reliable reports could be generated and it was evident that the CIA would have to start over in the Far East. No one was able to infiltrate the North Korean regime and the agency was being deceived at every turn. In a meeting with senior agency leaders, Frank Wisner stated:

We are all aware that our operations in the Far East are far from what we would like… We simply have not had the time to develop the quantity and kind of people we must have it we are to successfully carry out the heavy burdens which have been placed on us.”

Legacy of Ashes, p. 58

What directed many of the CIA’s policies was its emphasis on Europe. Asia was normally considered a secondary theater that did not pose a significant danger. Allen Dulles reinforced this ideology following his promotion to DCI and subsequent intelligence failures in China and Indochina. The legacy of the Korean War for the CIA was one of recurring disappointment. The best that could be said was that Bedell Smith’s restructuring of agency offices and command chain is still used today, but nothing can salvage the cost of human lives that were lost trying to combat the Communists in Korea.

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