No Wonder We're Within an Inch of War in North Korea

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It's been a rough week for the communication staffs of the North Korean military and the U.S. military. Today, a U.S. official was replaced after mentioning a covert operation in North Korea and last night North Korea issued a military threat that is mathematically impossible. For two countries "within an inch of war" of each other, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta put it recently, there sure is a lot of bungled talk going on. 

Today, Brigadier General Neil Tolley, the commander of U.S. Special Forces in South Korea, is being replaced after stating that U.S. special forces have been parachuting into North Korea on covert ops missions. Tolley's statements, reported in the Tokyo-based foreign affairs magazine The Diplomat, were initially denied by the military until Tolley issued a statement saying he was accurately quoted but misspoke. (He was trying to discuss hypothetical parachute missions not actual ones, he said.) “In my attempt to explain where technology could help us, I spoke in the present tense," he said. "To be clear, at no time have we sent special operations forces into North Korea.” Officially, the military says the timing of Tolley's replacement is "merely coincidental," but either way, the communication mishap probably didn't cool tensions on the Asian peninsular. 

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Following parachute-gate, North Korea issued a wildly confrontational threat to South Korea, threatening a "merciless sacred war" on the country's media companies, which it was aiming its artillery on. "Comments from the General Staff of the Korean People's Army contained an unusually specific mention of the longitude and latitude of the locations of seven media outlets," reported The Associated Press on Monday. North Korea, of course, issues threats to the South constantly but the posting of coordinates was especially spooky. The announcement stated:

Officers and men of the army corps, divisions and regiments on the front and strategic rocket forces in the depth of the country are loudly calling for the issue of order to mete out punishment, declaring that they have already targeted Chosun Ilbo at coordinates of 37 degrees 56 minutes 83 seconds North Latitude and 126 degrees 97 minutes 65 seconds East Longitude in the Central District, Seoul, Choongang Ilbo at coordinates of 37 degrees 33 minutes 45 seconds North Latitude and 126 degrees 58 minutes 14 seconds East Longitude in the Central District, Seoul, the Dong-A Ilbo at coordinates of 37 degrees 57 minutes 10 seconds North Latitude and 126 degrees 97 minutes 81 seconds East Longitude in Jongro District, Seoul, KBS, CBS, MBC and SBS, the strongholds of the [South Korean President] Lee [Myung-bak] group orchestrating the new vicious smear campaign.

Embarrassingly, The Wall Street Journal reports the coordinates listed above are just plain wrong. "As everyone who has finished third grade knows, the minute and second numbers shouldn’t exceed 60 when it comes to expressing geographic coordinates." writes Evan Ramstad. The inaccurate coordinates were first discovered by the Seoul newspaper Seoul Shinmun and Martyn Williams, a technology journalist on a fellowship at Stanford University, who explains the messup here

Given that North and South Korea are technically at war, and that 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed there, it's a little unsettling that gaffes like this can happen. Then again, the two nations have been at war since 1950 (the conflict was never resolved with a peace treaty), so mistakes will happen over half a century.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.