Signals Intelligence in The Cold War - Korean War

Korean War

Korean coverage was incidental to Soviet and Chinese interests in the Korean Peninsula.

Was there early warning of the Korean War? Perhaps, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. As with the retrospective analysis of COMINT immediately after Pearl Harbor, certain traffic, if not a smoking gun, would have been suggestive, to an astute analyst trusted by the high command. Before the invasion, targeting was against Chinese and Soviet targets with incidental mention of Korea. Prior to 1950 there were two COMINT hints of more than usual interest in the Korean peninsula by communist bloc nations, but neither was sufficient to provide specific warning of a June invasion.

In April 1950, ASA undertook a limited "search and development" study of DPRK traffic. Two positions the second case, as revealed in COMINT, large shipments of bandages and medicines went from the USSR to North Korea and Manchuria, starting in February 1950. These two actions made sense only in hindsight, after the invasion of South Korea occurred in June 1950.

Some North Korean communications were intercepted between May 1949 and April 1950 because the operators were using Soviet communications procedures. Coverage was dropped once analysts confirmed the non-Soviet origin of the material.

Within a month of the North Korean invasion, the JCS approved the transfer of 244 officers and 464 enlisted men to AFSA and recommended a large increase in civilian positions. In August, the DoD comptroller authorized an increase of 1,253 additional civilian COMINT positions. Given the administration's belief that the war in Korea could be part of a wider war, only some of the increase would go to direct support of the war in Korea.

COMINT, supported by information from other open and secret sources, showed a number of other military-related activities, such as VIP visits and communications changes, in the Soviet Far East and in the PRC, but none was suspicious in itself. Even when consolidated by AFSA in early 1951, these activities as a whole did not provide clear evidence that a significant event was imminent, much less a North Korean invasion of the South.

In 1952, when personnel levels and a more static war allowed some retrospective analysis, AFSA reviewed unprocessed intercept from the June 1950 period. Analysts could not find any message which would have given advance warning of the North Korean invasion. One of the earliest, if not the earliest, messages relating to the war, dated June 27 but not translated until October, referred to division level movement by North Korean forces.

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