The Pentagon insisted Monday that the decision to replace the troubled leader of U.S. special forces in South Korea is not associated with his recent public blunder.
Brig. Gen. Neil Tolley, commanding general of the Special Operations Command Korea, came under fire after he reportedly said in late May that some of his troops have been sent clandestinely into North Korea on spy missions.
The Department of Defense and the U.S. Forces Korea initially asserted that Tolley's remarks were "contorted, distorted and misreported," saying there are no U.S. boots on the ground in North Korea.
As a controversy grew, however, they said the commander is partly to blame for creating the stir.
The Pentagon then announced the replacement of Tolley, sparking speculation that he is being dismissed after less than two years of service due to the scandal.
In a list of nine general officer assignments, Brig. Gen. Eric P. Wendt, deputy commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, was appointed as Tolley's successor.
"The announcement of Brig. Gen. Wendt's appointment (as the new leader of the Special Operations Command in Korea) is a routine announcement that has been in the works for months as part of the normal assignment process for general officers," a Pentagon spokesperson told Yonhap News Agency.
"It is consistent with the previously planned rotation within the command," the official added on the customary condition of anonymity. "The Army announcement has no connection to current events or media reporting."
South and North Korea remain technically at war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce with the U.S. as a signatory. Sending soldiers to the North on such a mission would violate the truce.
There are around 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. (Yonhap News)