Good Intentions – Poor Execution: Intelligence and the Korean War

This was another academic submission inspired by the increased tensions with North Korea and the result of my own question of “how did it happen?” 

We never seem to grasp the idea that present troubles have an extremely important set of contributing factors which established the conditions of today. This has been the way things have been; until policy starts taking into account these key factors, this is the way things shall continue to evolve…

The 20th century was a time burdened with major conflicts which redefined borders, national influence, and warfare itself. Of the major conflicts involving several nations at the same time, the war which started at the midpoint of the century and only lasted for three years, is largely eclipsed by struggles more tragic or recent. Known as the Korean War, the short but bitter struggle began on June 25, 1950 when the forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) initiated a massive ground assault against its southern neighbor, the Republic of Korea (ROK). Almost immediately, the battle drew in additional nations, pitting Communism against Western ideologies in the first major struggle of the Cold War. As a component of any form of diplomacy or conflict, intelligence played a major role in the immediate and long-term aspects of the fighting. By the cessation of direct hostilities upon the formalization of an armistice on July 27, 1953, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had undergone a brutal baptism by fire as a result of the successes and failures it experienced on the front lines as well as in Washington D.C. Though the CIA emerged from this conflict as the primary intelligence organ of the U.S., the challenges and defeats experienced during the war became harsh lessons learned by the organization and established the foundations of subsequent efforts by the CIA.

Plagued by early difficulties in their ability to collect and disseminate information to various agencies within the U.S. government, the CIA’s faced challenge after challenge. Established in 1947 by the National Security Act of 1947, the agencies’ staff consisted of only a few thousand employees divided into analytical, operations, and administrative branches. Nowhere near the manning and capabilities of the 13,000-member Office of Strategic Services it replaced, the CIA immediately fell behind in meeting the demands for analytical production.[1] In 1948, the CIA failed to predict and react to information leading up to the riots in Bogota, Colombia which took place during a visit by the Secretary of State at the time, George Marshall.[2] Almost a year later, the CIA once again sustained self-inflicted injury to their organizational reputation when the Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb on August 29, 1949; five days earlier, the CIA issued a report indicating 1953 as “the most probable date” for the Russians to be able to produce such a device.[3]

Contemporary national concerns about the spread of Communism in Asia placed much focus on the actions of the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea prior to 1950. Reporting consistently on the events unfolding on the Korean peninsula, the CIA produced daily intelligence reviews which supported the continued need for U.S. troops to remain in South Korea as a stabilizing presence, while downplaying the potential for outright Soviet-instigated aggression in the region.[4] In one of the first of many conflicts with other governmental agencies with their own organic intelligence assets, the U.S. Army had already reduced their personnel strength in Korea to 8,000 men from the original 40,000 by the middle of 1949 due to the fact that the military presence maintained a “relatively minor psychological contribution to the stability of the Republic of Korea.”[5]  On June 23, 1950, the Director of Central Intelligence, Roscoe Hillenkoetter, testified before the Senate that any apparent political instability of South Korea or potential military buildup by North Korea constituted “nothing to indicate a crisis was at hand” on the peninsula.[6]

What the CIA missed and erroneously declared as benign was a series of intelligence failures and communications breakdowns within the U.S. government. Prior to 1950, the CIA considered Communism to be “inherently incompatible with traditional social, economic, and political platforms” in the region and reported North Korea to be devoid of experienced and competent leaders, popular political support, and free from Soviet exploitation.[7] Much of these assertions stemmed from the fact that North Korean trade not destined for the Soviet Union had, by 1950, declined to be substantially below the levels established in 1944.[8] Consequently, the best diplomatic restriction to halt the influence of Communism in Korea was the option of continued military and economic sanctions against North Korea.[9] However, over 1,000 reports to Washington D.C. filed by General Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence chief of staff, Major General Charles Willoughby relayed indications of a progressive yet massive effort was taking place during the first half of 1950.[10] Initially dismissing these reports to be from unreliable sources, the CIA sent Lieutenant Jay Vanderpool to investigate the contradicting reports from British intelligence and Willoughby in 1950. Vanderpool’s findings supported the more conservative British estimate of a North Korean buildup 36,000 rather than Willoughby’s accurate estimation of 135,000 troops.[11] Comforted by the platitudes of facts confirmed to fit what was desired, the CIA continued to believe their official notion that the North Koreans would not be able to initiate and dominate a successful campaign against South Korea without Soviet and Chinese assistance.[12] The dispositions maintained by the CIA of North Korean military strength being 66,000 men, 65 T-34 tanks, negligible artillery, naval, and air support, and an inefficient logistics system dependent almost entirely on Soviet assistance warranted no cause for alarm in Washington over the possible trouble brewing in Korea.[13] On June 25, 1950, the belligerent and determined North Korean army crossed the border into South Korea in numbers previously dismissed numbers to the shock of the world – 110,000 soldiers, 242 T-34’s, 180 aircraft and over 1,600 artillery pieces.[14] The CIA’s reassurances and the credibility for the intelligence they provided had lulled the West into complacency.

An understanding of the concept of intelligence is vital in correlating the concept of success or failure in terms of its application. Broadly defined, intelligence describes any means by which information about a foreign nation collects information to assist military and diplomatic decision making processes. During the Korean War, the major sources of intelligence were collected by human assets (HUMINT), imagery from photo-reconnaissance flights, (IMINT), and the identification of transmissions (SIGINT), to include the location and interception of radio transmissions (COMINT).[15] As the head of the CIA, Hillenkoetter defended the CIA’s efforts to provide ample warning based on collected intelligence prior to the June 25th invasion, yet President Truman saw the need for reform of the CIA as imperative due to the organizations trend of setbacks and failures. With Hillenkoetter’s retirement on August 21, 1950, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith brought purpose, change, and experience to the CIA as the new Director of Central Intelligence.[16] Smith’s first order of business was to review the CIA’s processing of intelligence sources and improve inter-agency coordination and cooperation mechanisms which had been one of the key problem areas with the CIA’s previous actions.[17] Cooperation between the CIA and other American intelligence organizations such as the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) had improved enough to increase the flow of information by the time General Walton Walker’s 8th Army had retreated southward to Pusan. It was the combination of the improvisational SIGINT and COMINT abilities of the AFSS which facilitated Walker’s concept of mobile defense in the late summer of 1950 as he took the provided intelligence to rapidly redeploy his forces in anticipation to the intercepted North Korean tactical communications.[18]

As a success story describing the effective appreciation and application of intelligence as a powerful tactical and strategic tool, the example established by the AFSS in the defense and breakthrough at Pusan was apparent to the CIA. The use of HUMINT by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Clark provided vital information necessary for the amphibious forces to successfully negotiate the tides of the Flying Fish Channel and land at Inchon in September 1950.[19] However, it was also intelligence learned by Clark’s network of Korean irregulars during a mission to steal North Korean radar parts which the CIA again dismissed a month later.[20] The momentum  of previous collection and analysis failures continued as the agency disregarded HUMINT provided by Clark and other sources indicating the massing and eventual crossing of the Yalu River by Chinese Communist troops in October 1950. Despite clear indications by China of their intentions to enter the conflict if U.N. forces crossed the 38th parallel heading north, the CIA reported on October 12, 1950 that there were “no convincing indications of an actual Chinese Communist intention to resort to full-scale intervention in Korea,” and “such action is not probable in 1950.” [21] On November 25, 1950, the Chinese “Second Phase Offensive” started with over 300,000 Chinese troops counterattacking U.N. troops and quickly pushing them southward once again.[22]

1952-1953 was an effort of continual learning on the path towards Armistice. The CIA had started the practice of parachuting agents into North Korea on March 15, 1951 with the intent to destroy logistics targets near Hyon-Ni. This mission was a failure due to problems with missed drop zones, weather, unanticipated and extensive defenses of the primary target, and lack of effective communication with allied units for two weeks.[23] Subsequent and similar efforts to use civilians recruited and trained as HUMINT assets by the Korean Liaison Office (KLO) were innovative and adaptive to the budgetary and resource restrictions they faced. Initial poor training standards and no radios or trained operators relegated the KLO to dropping teams beyond allied lines with only smoke grenades to mark the position of Chinese and North Korean forces.[24] With later efforts evolving and adapting to the unacceptable attrition of the agents trained by the KLO and invariably lost to attrition, the practice of wearing enemy uniforms raised the overall success of the teams parachuted into enemy territory.[25] The increased visibility of programs requiring the insertion of agents with the intent to report from behind North Korean lines necessitated the creation of the Joint Advisory Commission-Korea (JACK); this initiative also fell victim to the eventual and inevitable jurisdictional conflict between the CIA and other agencies.[26] Though not an overall success story, the CIA’s use of civilians in unconventional warfare and intelligence gathering roles which constituted a minor but contributing problem for the North Korean and Chinese Communist forces for the remainder of the war.[27] Techniques developed during the First World War which involved sensors to detect the vibrations of troop movements were re-purposed as COMINT resources which intercepted Chinese telephone conversations during the conflict. SIGINT proved to be decisive in the 1952 battle of White Horse Mountain by providing battlefield commanders with intercepted Chinese communications indicating the impending attack; the battle of Old Baldy and Pork Chop Hill one year later followed the same successful pattern of rapidly-employed assets, effective analysis, and timely dissemination to the units best postured to exploit the intelligence.[28] VHF intercepts by the U.S. Air Force Security Service assets located on Cho-Do island near the North Korean port of Woson contributed to the successes in the air with a total of fifteen MiG’s successfully intercepted and shot down on one August day in 1953 for no loss of American fighters.[29]

1953-1960 was a period of recovery, reorganization, and consolidation of the lessons learned by the intelligence community during the Korean War. The careful path towards an uneasy state of peace between North and South Korea was a deliberate and diplomatic contest of wills and concessions. Signed on July 27, 1953 and ratified October 1 of the same year, the Armistice Agreement marked the end of the formal fighting on the Korean peninsula and established the Demilitarized Zone as a buffer between nations and ideologies.[30] For the wide assortment of service-specific intelligence organizations, rivalries gave way to reorganizations and the absorption into larger Agencies in an effort to refine and simplify operational and administrative processes.[31] The CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence had grown tenfold since the beginning of the Korean War due largely to the successful lobbying of DCI Smith during the conflict.[32] Most importantly, the developmental trials during the CIA’s first operational decade provided a rigorous opportunity to redefine the intelligence requirements prior to and during large scale conflicts.

An analysis of the CIA’s involvement addresses the agency’s implementation, influence on the Korean War and the application of the insights gained during the war against Communist forces on the Korean peninsula.  Unlike the Korean War, the Vietnam War’s slow and gradual rise to prominence eclipsed the sudden and violent start of the wars previously fought by the U.S., and like the Korean war, intelligence lessons from earlier conflicts often had to be relearned in their entirety. The value of cooperation and independence as well as the wisdom to appreciate leniency in each of these aspects during operations proved to be vital prior to and during both wars. The organizational tendencies to view information gathered by organic assets and the reluctance to willingly share critical intelligence stymied government organizations to the point of rendering the power of pride almost as deadly as actual weapons. The contentious relationship between the CIA, the Armed Forces, and the administration hindered rather than helped the flow of information at critical junctures during the days before and during the Korean War. Whether the motivation to commodify intelligence and cooperation was a matter of rivalry or jealousy even before 1950, the intelligence community viewed collaboration with suspicion.

Another key point of the Korean War’s legacy was the reluctance to present information which directly contradicted the diplomatic and military biases toward unrealistic estimations. Both Hillenkoetter and Vanderpool presented official reports which contrasted sharply with what the actions and desires of U.S. foreign policy had set in motion. The troop reduction had already begun well before the disposition and intentions of North Korea could be accurately assessed and the withdrawal of intelligence assets early in the process prevented any continuation in monitoring the unraveling situation on the Korean peninsula. As the war progressed, MacArthur’s insistence in continuing the pursuit of the retreating North Koreans past the 38th parallel, despite all official indications otherwise would also indicate a lack of attendance to factual and realistic considerations. Since Korea, this pattern has become familiar within any organization and the current of calculated omission can easily become overpowering for even the strongest realist within the organization.

Finally, the use of trained civilians for deliberate intelligence gathering missions proved to be necessary, though borderline unethical on many levels. Officially, the agents recruited by the CIA in the Korean War can fall into the categories of “lawful combatants” or “unprivileged combatants,” depending on the perspective of whether or not South Korean civilians behind enemy lines and spying on North Korean military forces deems them “inhabitants of an area” or through action “incurred the corresponding liabilities of combatant status” due to their questionable initial qualification as combatants.[33] Retrospective debate, however, is insufficient to rationalize the immediate concerns and choices faced by the South Korean civilians willing to undertake hastened training, endure the dangers of parachuting into hostile territory, and risk capture, death, or failure during their voluntary mission. The use of noncombatants for military actions has been a facet of human conflict as long as conflict itself, and the increased survivability and effectiveness of such individuals is a reflection of the desperation and ethics of the recruiting entity.

The Korean War has become known as the “forgotten war” in relation to the more titanic struggles which occurred before and after the 3-year conflict. Taking place at the initial stages of the Cold War, the war on the Korean peninsula also marked the debut for the CIA as well as the continual evolution of arms, equipment, and doctrine in warfare. By the time the Armistice was signed and the delicate truce began in 1953, the CIA – along with the rest of the American intelligence community – had experienced failures and successes alike. At the end of the CIA’s first decade, the organization was considerably different and the lessons of the war were never truly forgotten.


[1] Clayton Laurie, “The Korean War and the Central Intelligence Agency,”, 2010, accessed March 15, 2017,, 4.

[2] L. Britt Snider, Congress and the CIA, (New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2009), accessed March 15, 2017, ProQuest Ebook Central, 202.

[3] Donald P. Steury, “How the CIA Missed Stalin’s Bomb – Dissecting Soviet Analysis, 1946-50,”, 2008, accessed March 15, 2017,

[4] Clayton Laurie, “The Korean War and the Central Intelligence Agency,” 7.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] L. Britt Snider, Congress and the CIA, 203.

[7] “Current Capabilities of the North Korean Regime,”, 1950, accessed March 15, 2017,, 7.

[8] Ibid., 9.

[9] “26 June 1950 Daily Summary,”, 1950, accessed March 15, 2017,, 2, 13.

[10] John P. Finnegan, “Intelligence Operations in the Korean War,” Studies in Intelligence 16, no. 2 (Nov. 2002), accessed March 15, 2017,, 1.

[11] Bong K. Lee, Unfinished War – Korea, (New York: Algora Publishing, 2007), accessed February 22, 2017, ProQuest Ebook Central, 71.

[12] “Current Capabilities of the North Korean Regime,” 1

[13] Ibid., 11.

[14] Bong K. Lee, Unfinished War – Korea, 74,76.

[15] “About the Intelligence Community: What is the intelligence community (IC)?”, n.d., accessed March 15, 2017,

[16] Clayton Laurie, “The Korean War and the Central Intelligence Agency,” 10.

[17] Ibid., 11.

[18] Jill Frahm, “SIGINT and the Pusan Perimeter,”, 2016, accessed March 15, 2017,

[19] Bong K. Lee, Unfinished War – Korea, 137.

[20] Ibid., 143.

[21] Clayton Laurie, “The Korean War and the Central Intelligence Agency,” 13.

[22] Ibid., 14.

[23] Richard L. Kiper, “Unconventional Warfare in Korea: Forgotten Aspect of the ‘Forgotten War’,” 31.

[24] John P. Finnegan, “Intelligence Operations in the Korean War,” 3.

[25] Ibid., 6.

[26] Richard L. Kiper, “Unconventional Warfare in Korea: Forgotten Aspect of the ‘Forgotten War’,” 33.

[27] Ibid., 35.

[28] Thomas R. Johnson, “Opening the Door a Crack – American Cryptology During the Korean War,” 6.

[29] Ibid., 7.

[30] Bong K. Lee, Unfinished War – Korea, 226.

[31] Thomas R. Johnson, “Opening the Door a Crack – American Cryptology During the Korean War,” 8.

[32] Clayton Laurie, “The Korean War and the Central Intelligence Agency,” 16.

[33] Department of Defense General Counsel Washington DC,  Department of Defense Law of War Manual, (Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, 2016), accessed March 15, 2017,, 104-105.


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