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Korean War:
Intelligence gets off to a rough start
1950-1955

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The U.S. intelligence community was busy focusing on the new communist threat in Europe and elsewhere in Asia after World War II and it’s handling of the North Korean invasion of South Korea is considered by historians to be one of the greatest intelligence failures to date.

Post World War intelligence in Korea was the responsibility of the United States Military Advisory Group to the Republic of Korea (KMAG). There were other American intelligence groups at work in the Korean peninsula from 1948-1950. MG Willoughby, General MacArthur’s G2 for the Far East Command, led a small intelligence unit called the Korean Liaison Office. The newly created CIA had agents in Korea as did the Office of Special Investigations (OSI). Almost all in-country intelligence collection at this time was HUMIT derived.

The North Korean build-up and the likelihood of an invasion did not go unreported by these intelligence organizations. As early as 1946, General Hodge, commander of the United States Army Forces in Korea, reported that the North Korean’s intended to attack South Korea. Dozens of such reports poured into MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo and to the intelligence community in Washington. In 1949 border fighting seemed to give credence to these reports and by late 1949 the discussion of a North Korean invasion was almost routine in intelligence circles.

In February or March of 1950 OSI special agent Nichols reported that the North’s invasion of South Korea was likely to occur very soon. Also in March General Willoughby reported the possibility of an invasion in June of that year.

A report forwarded routinely on 19 June 1950, six days before the North Korean assault, provided Washington with strong evidence of an imminent enemy offensive. It reported extensive troop movements along the 38th parallel, evacuation of all civilians north of the parallel for two kilometers, suspension of civilian freight service from Wonsan to Ch’orwon and the transportation of military supples only, concentration of armored units in the border area and the arrival of large shipments of weapons and ammunition.

These reports should of been more than sufficient to alert the G2 in Washington that a North Korean invasion was a distinct possibility but did not receive much interest for several reasons -

Unbelievably, the North Korean invasion came as a complete surprise to most U.S. and South Korean leaders. In the final analysis, the controversy over the intelligence failure in Korea is academic. The United States had no plans to counter an invasion, even had it been forecast to the very day. The only planned reaction was to evacuate U.S. nationals from the country.

The North Korean Army invaded South Korea in the pre-dawn hours of 25 June 1950. Striking without warning, the communist units gained complete tactical surprise a they burst across the 38th Parallel swiftly and in strength. Coordinated columns of Russian made tanks and Russian trained infantry followed massed artillery fires and rolled back the South Korean defenders, engulfing and destroying whole units as they moved toward their objectives. North Korean planes, giving tactical support, were virtually unchallenged.

U.S. logistical support to the South Korean army began almost immediately and soon the U.S. agreed to send in ground forces. General Willoughby provided specialists to the Eighth Army who could interrogate POWs, translate documents, and perform cryptanalysis. He also established a Joint Special Operations staff to collate and integrate information from all of the American intelligence agencies concerned, including the CIA, to produce military intelligence.

ASA operations in Korea began in mid September 1950 when the first ASA element (an eight man detachment) arrived. They were followed at the end of November by ASA Pacific (Advance), many of whom came from the 126th Signal Service Company at Kyoto. At the end of October the first sizable ASA component, the 60th Signal Service Company from Fort Lewis arrived in Korea. In June 1951, the 303rd Communications Reconnaissance Battalion (CRB) arrived and co-located with ASA Pacific (Advance) and assumed duties as the ASA theater command and control. The 501st CR Group became operational in July 1951, having been ordered to Korea from Camp Pickett, Virginia. It?s mission was to support Eighth U.S. Army. ASA Pacific (Advance) was absorbed by the 501st.

The ASA was revitalized by the Korean War. Previously, most ASA assets had been concentrated at fixed sites, performing a peacetime strategic mission. The Agency now found a new role in providing support to tactical operations, activating Communications Recon Groups, battalions and companies to support Commanders at every level. ASA SIGINT efforts were hampered by the problem of a lack of Chinese linguists.

ASA Units In Korea

In the aftermath of Korea, Army Intelligence moved towards a greater professionalism. The perceived need for a new emphasis on human intelligence led to the creation of a HUMINT training course in 1954. The mission of the Counterintelligence Corps School at Fort Holabird, Maryland, was expanded and in 1955 it became the Army Intelligence School. All combat intelligence training was centralized at Holabird and in 1971 the school relocated to Fort Huachuca Arizona. ASA personnel, however, continued to train at it's own facility at Fort Devens Massachusetts.

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