- Flash Point North Korea: The Pueblo and EC-121 Crises
"Fool me once, shame on you," the familiar adage advises. "Fool me twice, shame on me." Richard A. Mobley might not agree, given his gentle treatment in this study of the U.S. government for intelligence blunders that allowed the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) to humiliate the United States twice from January 1968 to June 1969. Fifteen months after North Korea seized the U.S.S. Pueblo, its fighter jets shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 surveillance aircraft. Mobley, a retired U.S. Navy commander and currently a U.S. government [End Page 136] intelligence analyst, writes how "both times the Seventh Fleet lacked immediately available forces to support sensitive and manifestly vulnerable intelligence collection operations. The coincidence tempts investigation" (p. 2). This detailed account provides insights about U.S. intelligence planning and operations, but fails to present a coherent explanation for the profound U.S. failure to assess accurately North Korea's intentions or the apparent incompetence of American leaders in managing relations with such a dangerous and unpredictable Communist adversary.
Mobley opens with coverage of the DPRK's increasing hostility toward South Korea and the United States from 1967 to 1969, referring to a string of violent incidents as the "Second Korean War." While U.S. officials doubted that the North Koreans would stage an open attack, "the upper limits of their willingness to engage in violent incidents were uncomfortably murky" (p. 8). The DPRK's military superiority over the Republic of Korea (ROK), especially in airpower, defense systems, and logistic support, added apprehension to American uncertainty. Requiring more information, U.S. leaders ordered the Pueblo to the North Korean coast. Mobley argues that it was understandable for the U.S. military to minimize the risks of a surveillance mission promoted as "a milk run" (p. 25) because Pyongyang's hostile behavior had created an imperative for more intelligence. Risk assessment for the operation was "not a rubber stamp process" (p. 27), but consumed just twelve days. Incredibly, General C. H. Bonesteel III, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, played no role, which Mobley targets as one flaw in the process, along with exaggerated optimism, acceptance of false analogies, and a "perfunctory" (p. 38) written report. He defends planners for ignoring warnings of danger, accepting the view that DPRK threats to seize ROK ships did not apply to U.S. vessels.
Mobley then covers North Korea's seizure of the Pueblo, assessing as smooth and swift the subsequent "Herculean efforts" of the U.S. government "at crisis management, contingency planning, and force deployment" (p. 40). After briefly considering aggressive action, Washington chose "to reduce the risk of war" (p. 47), which necessitated placating South Korea who Bonesteel feared would take independent military action. President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a major buildup of naval and air power in the region to press North Korea to accept a diplomatic solution. Mobley discusses the Korea Working Group's proposal of ten courses of action that included selective air strikes, naval blockade, mining of Wonsan harbor, seizing DPRK vessels, conducting air reconnaissance, and raids across the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Johnson rejected these options because none would secure recovery of the ship or its crew and he wanted "to avoid a second front in Asia" (p. 63). Johnson had "marshaled enormous striking power" (p. 70), but after nine weeks Vietnam forced redeployment to the south with the Pueblo crisis unresolved.
Flash Point North Korea summarizes the next nine months of "diplomacy [End Page 137] rather than military posturing" (p. 79), but Mitchell Lerner's description and analysis of these events in The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy (2002) is superior. Mobley devotes the last third of his study to the consequences of the U.S. decision not to halt Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance Program (PARPRO) flights off North Korea's coast with U.S. crewmen...