U.S. Intelligence Report Gave Impetus to False Story About Kim Death

Times Staff Writer

A U.S. official here said Friday that this week’s South Korean announcement of the reported death of North Korean President Kim Il Sung “started with a report that originated in the U.S. government.”

That intelligence report about Kim’s death, the existence of which has not been disclosed previously, “was the source of information that alerted the Korean government to be on the lookout for anything unusual,” said the official, who refused to be identified.

U.S. diplomats and military officers informed their South Korean counterparts Sunday morning of the report, which U.S. officials “believed should be taken seriously,” he said.

Several hours later, South Korean troops in the 151-mile-long demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North Korea and South Korea started hearing what they said were unusual broadcasts from Communist propaganda loudspeakers. Sad music was played on some of the loudspeakers, the Korean Defense Ministry said. Others started praising the achievements of “Great Leader Kim Il Sung,” the ministry added.

Heard at 36 Locations

From 8 p.m. Sunday, when one loudspeaker announced that Kim, 74, had been shot to death on a train, until 10:04 a.m. Tuesday, broadcasts indicating that Kim was dead continued at a total of 36 different locations in the DMZ, the Defense Ministry said.


On Monday morning, when it announced the contents of the reported loudspeaker broadcasts, the ministry said nothing about the Sunday U.S. intelligence report. American officials here still have not mentioned it while speaking for attribution.

The U.S. official said the key intelligence report, although about Kim Il Sung’s death, was different from an unconfirmed rumor that originated in Tokyo on Saturday. But it “lent credence to the Tokyo rumor,” he added.

Although the official refused to disclose details about the report or where it originated, he indicated it was not based upon monitoring of radio broadcasts in North Korea, which he said remained normal.

It was, he said, “a report you had to take seriously.”

Indicative, Not Conclusive

American officials, he said, believed that the report “appeared to be indicative"--but not conclusive--of Kim’s death, and informed the South Korean Foreign Ministry, the Agency for National Security Planning (the former Korean CIA) and South Korean military officials, who he said “had not heard of it,”

The official said that Gen. William J. Livsey, commander of U.S. forces in Korea and the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, “alerted people to be on the watch for possible changes.”

Asked if the report might have encouraged the South Korean Defense Ministry to make its Monday announcement, the U.S. official refused to speculate. But he said, “They obviously ran with it a lot harder than we did.”

Before they made their announcement, Korean Defense Ministry officials were told that “we would continue to say that we could not confirm the death of Kim Il Sung,” he said.

The South Korean announcement Monday was proven false 24 hours later by Kim’s appearance at the airport in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to greet visiting Mongolian leader Jambyn Batmonh, leaving the Seoul government severely embarrassed and its credibility damaged at home and abroad.

Condemned by Opposition

The opposition New Korea Democratic Party in a party caucus Friday repeated its condemnation of the government for “incompetence, lack of principles, and irresponsibility” in the handling of the announcement and reiterated a demand that the Cabinet resign en masse.

Prime Minister Lho Shin Yong on Friday urged the opposition to drop its criticism of the government over the incident, saying, “Continued wrangling can only play into North Korea’s hands.”

Lho acknowledged Wednesday in testimony to Parliament that the South Koreans probably had fallen prey to what he called a North Korean “disinformation” scheme designed to “tarnish our international credibility and estrange the people from the government.”

Lho said he was “bewildered” that the North Koreans had used for propaganda purposes the name of Kim Il Sung, who has been deified by a personality cult built up through more than 40 years. Kim was installed as the leader of the northern half of the country by Soviet occupation troops who took over after Japan, Korea’s colonial ruler between 1910 and 1945, was ousted at the end of World War II. American troops occupied the southern half of the country, where the Republic of Korea was established in 1948.

Not Confirmed by U.S.

Adding to the embarrassment for the government of President Chun Doo Hwan was the inability of the United States, which stations more than 40,000 troops here, including about 1,500 in or near the DMZ, to confirm South Korean reports about the loudspeaker broadcasts or sightings of flags flown at half-staff at North Korean outposts.

In response to opposition demands that the government produce evidence that the broadcasts actually occurred, Defense Minister Lee Ki Baek told Parliament on Thursday that no recordings had been made of the announcements. He said the distance between North and South Korean outposts, along with wind and other noise, had made recording impossible.

U.S. Eighth Army headquarters said publicly that American troops in and near Panmunjom, the truce village on the DMZ north of Seoul, had seen and heard nothing unusual.

The American official said Friday that the United States still had no independent confirmation that the North Korean loudspeaker broadcasts had occurred, but that U.S. officials have no reason to doubt South Korean statements that they took place.

He said that the United States--both before the rumors of Kim’s death started appearing in Tokyo over the weekend and now that they have been discredited--had no indication of political unrest or disturbances in North Korea. The only indication of trouble Americans had received from their own sources, he said, was the Sunday intelligence report he cited.

Now, that report, too, has been discredited, he added.

No Sign of Defense Chief

He said the United States was aware that Gen. O Chin U, the North Korean defense minister, has not appeared in public recently. But, he added, that did not necessarily point to political trouble in the north.

The South Korean government has not yet ruled out the possibility that the loudspeaker broadcasts might have indicated a power struggle in North Korea, but emphasizes that it now believes they were part of a “disinformation” scheme.

The U.S. official said he did not know whether the reported loudspeaker announcements were designed as disinformation. He noted, however, that North Korea stood to benefit from creating an impression that “you can’t believe anything the Chun government says--whether it’s about the dam (that North Korea plans to build over protests from Seoul), the students (who are protesting Chun’s authoritarian rule), or the ratio of tanks (by which the north’s outnumbers the south’s).”

On Tuesday, without mentioning the Sunday intelligence report that it had relayed to South Korean officials, the U.S. Forces Korea Command released a statement saying that it and the U.S.-Korea Combined Forces Command had “worked together to ensure that all appropriate authorities were informed of rumors . . . that, if true, could bear great significance for the security situation on the Korean peninsula.”

Until the U.S. official disclosed the existence of the Sunday intelligence report, that announcement appeared to be referring to the rumors that had originated in Tokyo.

U.S. Disavowal

Defense Minister Lee told Parliament on Monday night that the American CIA and the Combined Forces Command had concluded that Kim Il Sung was “almost certainly” dead--a statement that elicited a disavowal from Charles Redman, State Department spokesman, in Washington.

The U.S. official here said that Lee had exaggerated the view of the CIA and the Combined Forces Command with his phraseology that Kim was “almost certainly” dead. But Lee was accurate in stating that he received important intelligence information from the CIA and the Combined Forces Command, the official added.

“They have a right to say that we were in it with them early on,” the U.S. official said.

Grilled by opposition politicians in the National Assembly, Lee said he would be more careful in handling such reports in the future.

Although the Monday announcement itself only quoted the reported loudspeaker broadcasts and did not assert that Kim Il Sung was dead, Lee Heung Shik, the Defense Ministry’s spokesman, “clearly conveyed the idea that the (South) Korean government had concluded that Kim was dead” in a news conference he gave after making the announcement, the U.S. official said.

Impression Reinforced

Defense Minister Lee reinforced that impression with his statement about the CIA and the Combined Forces Command concluding that Kim was “almost certainly” dead, he added.

The ministry said it had decided to make the announcement without waiting another day to see whether Kim Il Sung would appear to greet the Mongolian leader because of the importance of the information and because of the rumors that had started in Tokyo. Unlike the Sunday U.S. intelligence report, news of the Tokyo rumors was published in Seoul.

Ministry officials have not explained, however, why they remained silent for nearly 24 hours after the reported loudspeaker announcements began but felt they could not wait another day to see whether Kim showed up Tuesday as scheduled to greet his Mongolian visitor.

They have refused to meet foreign correspondents, whose inquiries are being handled by the Ministry of Culture and Information.