• The Korean Armistice and the End of Peace:The US-UN Coalition and the Dynamics of War-Making in Korea, 1953–76

This article historicizes the contemporary relationship between the United States, its leading United Nations allies, and the two Koreas through the lens of the post-1953 history of the Korean Armistice Agreement, demonstrating that the US-UN allies were not only responsible for significant violations of the truce, but also that these violations escalated the ongoing conflict. The article explores how the United States and its allies in the United Nations understood the legacies of war associated with the Armistice, how they conducted their diplomacy in relation to the Armistice Agreement, and how their reactions to a series of post-1953 crises—the American introduction of atomic weapons to South Korea in the latter part of the 1950s; American and allied diplomacy surrounding North Korea’s seizure in early 1968 of the US spy ship, the USS Pueblo; and the Joint Security Area (JSA) War Crisis of August 1976—involved warfare strategies intertwined with violations of the Armistice Agreement. Far from creating peace or stability, the manner in which successive American and allied UNC governments have dealt with the Armistice has fueled and escalated the ongoing militarization of the Korean peninsula, of which the contemporary nuclear crisis is just one obvious by-product. The Korean Armistice, constantly violated by North Korea and the UNC, and still not adhered to by South Korea today, has not inhibited conflict in Korea or mediated tension. Indeed, US-UNC violations of the Armistice have been a major reason that the agreement has become part of the many obstacles to creating peace on the Korean peninsula.

On February 23, 1995, Acting US Department of State spokesperson Christine Shelly asserted that North Korean officials had been attempting for a number of [End Page 183] years “to destroy the armistice mechanism set up in the armistice agreement, which ended the Korean War.”1 Their activities included an effort to evict the Polish representative on the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC), which had been established by the Armistice “to oversee the cessation of the introduction of reinforcing military personnel and equipment and to conduct investigations of armistice violations.”2 The American government had therefore “forcefully told Pyongyang” not to violate the Armistice, which had “maintained the peace on the Korean Peninsula for more than 40 years now.”3 Peace, Shelly remarked, “is a matter for Koreans, North and South, to settle.”4 If the two Koreas wanted, the United States was willing “to assist,” but America would “not negotiate a bilateral peace accord with the DPRK.”5

This 1995 statement reflected a repressed memory about the contemporary history of the Korean peninsula, as well as the critical role the United States had played in shaping the history of the two Koreas since the end of the Second World War. The comments by the Department of State contained no conscious sense of the American impact on the Armistice, nor that of any of America’s allies who were tied to the agreement. Indeed, the State Department articulated a number of misleading and erroneous notions, including the idea that the 1953 Armistice had ended the Korean War and had fostered peace on the peninsula. The statement also seemed to imply that the United States had been a neutral actor in negotiations between North and South Korea, and that it could act as an impartial mediator in discussions between the two countries that had fought a devastating civil war in which the United States had itself played a leading role. The Department of State ignored a central fact of the history of the Armistice itself: that it had been negotiated by United States military officials on behalf of the United Nations Command (UNC), but in the absence of South Korean assent. The Syngman Rhee (Yi Sŭngman) government publicly criticized the truce in the hope that the war could continue against the northern republic, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) has never formally adhered to the accord. There was also significant irony in the State Department’s demands that the northern regime not violate the agreement, as historically the United States has consistently violated the provisions of the Armistice.

In contrast to the erroneous and misleading 1995 State Department account, this article historicizes the contemporary relationship between the United States, its leading UN allies, and the two Koreas. Although contemporary media and official government sources suggest that North Korea has unilaterally broken the Armistice Agreement, this article shows not only that the US-UN side was responsible for significant violations of the truce, but also that these violations escalated the ongoing conflict. In particular, the article examines how the United States and its allies in the United Nations understood the legacies of war associated with the Armistice, how they conducted their diplomacy in relation to the Armistice Agreement, and how their reactions to a series of post-1953 crises—the American introduction of atomic weapons to South Korea in the latter part [End Page 184] of the 1950s; American and allied diplomacy surrounding North Korea’s seizure in early 1968 of the US spy ship, the USS Pueblo; and the Joint Security Area (JSA) War Crisis of August 1976—involved warfare strategies intertwined with violations of the Armistice Agreement. Far from creating peace or stability, the manner in which successive American and allied UNC governments have dealt with the Armistice has fueled and escalated the ongoing militarization of the Korean peninsula, of which the contemporary nuclear crisis is just one obvious by-product. The Korean Armistice, constantly violated by North Korea and the UNC, and still not adhered to by South Korea today, has not inhibited conflict in Korea or mediated tension. Indeed, US-UNC violations of the Armistice have been a major reason that the agreement has become part of the many obstacles to creating peace on the Korean peninsula.

Nuclear Weapons and the End of the Korean Armistice, 1953–58

The major American violation of the Armistice in the 1950s, one that significantly escalated tension on the Korean peninsula, was the stationing of atomic weapons in South Korea in January 1958. This decision violated article two, paragraph 13(d) of the Armistice Agreement, which stipulated that no new weapons should be introduced to the peninsula, and that weapons designed to replace existing ones should go through ports of entry monitored by the NNSC, composed of officials from Switzerland, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.6 The NNSC reported inspections and investigations to the Military Armistice Commission, set up by the Armistice to monitor the implementation of the agreement and to facilitate discussion about truce violations.7

The US decision to station nuclear weapons in South Korea was rooted in United States policymakers’ inability in 1951 and 1952 to conclude a truce on their own terms—especially the non-forcible repatriation of prisoners of war, something which fueled their proclivity to threaten a further escalation of the conflict in order to compel the Communists to accept UNC terms. The US position broke the 1949 Geneva Convention on humanitarian treatment of prisoners and civilians in wartime, which required prisoners to be promptly repatriated at the cessation of hostilities. The tendency to intimidate the enemy by threatening the use of weapons of mass destruction was informed by a conviction that violence and coercion were the best ways to negotiate with Communists, whose underhanded negotiating tactics were anathema to diplomatic solutions. These sentiments were only partially shared by America’s UN allies, who feared the strategic consequences of using nuclear weapons in Asia and were apprehensive about the catastrophic regional and global consequences of expanding a war which drained resources from their domestic economies and distracted their attention away from their perceived key interests in Europe. [End Page 185]

The US military experience in Korea in the early 1950s contributed to the birth of the “New Look” global nuclear strategy that argued for the utility of employing nuclear weapons on the battlefield and as a coercive tool of American diplomacy. President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed that nuclear threats were a feasible way of achieving diplomatic goals, and in the spring of 1953 the US-UNC made clear to the Communists, through diplomatic and military initiatives, that a failure to accept their final negotiating positions on the Armistice would result in a graduated expansion of the conflict, ultimately involving the use of atomic weapons against China.8 America’s Commonwealth allies, especially Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, reluctantly supported the American negotiating position and requested that additional consultations be carried out in the event the Communists refused to accept UNC terms.9 Overall, the war had highlighted the limits of allied influence on American nuclear policy: US leaders had agreed to only inform, not to consult, their allies about the use of atomic weapons. Yet the perceived need to buttress America’s global containment goals had led America’s allies to back the broad contours of US diplomacy in Korea, a tendency that continued into the 1950s, even as they prepared to significantly cut their military presence in and around the Korean peninsula.

The propensity of the United States in the early 1950s to compel the enemy to accept its negotiating terms established a precedent for UNC crisis diplomacy after 1953. Eisenhower and Dulles both made erroneous public statements that their atomic diplomacy had been the main reason for the Communists’ decision to accept the UNC’s Armistice conditions. After the signing of the Armistice, however, US-UNC military compulsion invariably involved breaking the terms of the agreement. The result was significant erosion, virtual destruction, of the main tenets of the truce document and the danger of a major escalation of big-power nuclear conflict over the peninsula, a situation aptly described by political scientist Peter Hayes as the “Pacific Powderkeg.”10

The decision to introduce nuclear weapons to Korea was also tied to a US military effort to counter the Communist side’s decision, after signing the Armistice, to station modern jets on North Korean soil. The UNC criticized these moves as violations of the Armistice Agreement. In 1954 the UNC began to seriously consider the Communist buildup as a longer-term threat to its strategic position. In retrospect the Communist decision was defensive, occurring conterminously with a large withdrawal of Chinese troops from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which witnessed eight of nineteen Chinese armies leaving North Korea between the spring of 1953 and July 1954. In July 1954, the UN Commander, General John Hull, reported that the “UN Forces are now stronger than the Communist Forces and there is therefore little prospect of Communist attack unless strong reinforcements are brought in from Communist China.”11 Several weeks earlier, however, Hull had complained to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) that paragraph 13 of the Armistice Agreement, governing restrictions on the introduction of war matériel, would “eventually depress his air capabilities to [End Page 186] the point of impotency.”12 North Korea had not sent updated information to the NNSC about replacement parts for its military equipment, and actively limited the mobility of the inspectors, often refusing to provide them access to areas in the country where the Commission wanted to investigate possible violations of the Armistice. Additionally, since the Communist members on the NNSC, through their inspection teams, were also effectively spying on UNC military activities, Hull wanted the US government to dissolve the Commission.13

The United States began to discuss the introduction of modern weapons to South Korea with British officials in May 1955. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told United Kingdom (UK) Defense Minister Harold Macmillan that the United States planned to strengthen allied air forces in Korea as part of a force-modernization plan and an effort to “replace obsolete equipment with comparable but modern types.”14 Initially, American policymakers restricted their discussions to British diplomats, their closest big-power ally, and reached an agreement that would allow for a liberal interpretation of the Armistice in order to secretly bring newer weapons into Korea. From the official UK point of view, however, the timing of the initiative was poor, as it overlapped with a series of anxiety-ridden diplomatic disputes between the United States, South Korea, and Communist states in East Asia. In Korea, UK concerns centered on the South Korean government, which threatened to evict, arrest, or attack Polish and Czech representatives of the NNSC for spying and as part of the Korean effort to highlight the bankruptcy of the Armistice Agreement. An ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs memo in March 1955 had argued that “the Armistice has completely lost its raison d’être not only because of the continual Communist violations but also because it is no longer a prelude to a peaceful solution to the Korean question.”15 There was a grain of truth to this statement, though the southern regime had refused to sign the Armistice and wanted a military solution to the divided peninsula. British officials were especially concerned that the South Korean government not use the dispute over the Commission as an excuse to inflame hostilities on the peninsula.

The First Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954–1955 also impacted Anglo-American discussions over the modernization and NNSC issues. In the late summer of 1954, Chairman Mao Zedong had ordered the shelling and occupation of several small islands in the Taiwan Strait. Mao aimed to inspire revolutionary fervor in China and mobilize the masses for the country’s Socialist reconstruction. An ancillary goal was to undermine relations between the Nationalist government and the United States, and prevent the passage of the US–Republic of China Mutual Defense Treaty, though the crisis actually accelerated the signing of the treaty.16 With propaganda from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) decrying American imperialism across the East Asian periphery from Korea to Vietnam, the British and other Commonwealth allies became alarmed at the impact the modernization program would have on regional tensions. The Churchill government was intent on addressing the UK’s economic troubles, caused by the massive rearmament [End Page 187] program of the early 1950s, and was determined to cut back its military commitments to Korea and Asia. Foreign Office diplomats informed their American counterparts that the NNSC issue could not be coupled with the introduction of modern weapons since such a move would exacerbate tensions in the entire region. A February 1955 Foreign Office telegram, directed toward Britain’s Commonwealth allies, pointed out that the abolition of the NNSC was entirely different from the introduction of modern weapons into Korea. The latter violated paragraph 13(d) of the Armistice and therefore required “clear and quotable evidence of Communist violations” of that section of the truce. The timing of the introduction of such weapons was therefore of the highest importance. Any effort to introduce these weapons now, “coming on top of Formosa crisis … would inevitably exacerbate [the] situation in [the] Far East. It would be represented as evidence Americans wished to terminate Korean armistice and as a further threat of war in [the] Far East, just at a time when we all should do everything we can to calm things down.”17 There were inconsistencies, however, in the British-Commonwealth position—for while they remained concerned about the Rhee government’s efforts to organize a UNC-backed offensive against North Korea and about not exacerbating relations with the Communists, their objectives were concerned with timing, not the principle of introducing modern weapons or the objective of limiting the authority of the NNSC. Significantly, Commonwealth officials did not want an increase in tensions over Korea as they moved forward with plans to withdraw their troops from the peninsula. Unbeknownst to the allies, however, by the summer of 1955 American officials were already considering sending the 280mm atomic cannon to Korea as part of their modernization strategy. In the Department of Defense, linkages had already been made between atomic weapons and the Armistice Agreement. “We could not introduce 280mm cannon to Korea,” brooded Under Secretary for Defense, Robert Anderson, “and give the Communists the right or opportunity to inspect the cannon.”18

The Communist side also worried about dismantling the NNSC. Chinese officials, for example, feared the abolishment of the NNSC would provide the ROK-US greater momentum for their forward and aggressive policy in Asia, so they worked to retain the institution and even agreed to reduce the size of the NNSC inspection teams. The Swiss and Swedes suggested a further reduction in the number of inspection teams from five to three, a position accepted by the UNC in August 1955. When the Swedes and Swiss proposed that inspection teams in the two Koreas be restationed at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as a means of limiting their mobility, the Chinese government responded in January 1956 by recommending that the three existing teams be reduced to one on each side19—a position the Americans secretly rejected as unworkable, but which the allies were prepared to consider.

In early April 1956 the People’s Republic of China proposed the convening of a political conference on Korea which would discuss the removal of foreign troops on the peninsula. The Chinese officials, who were preparing to withdraw all [End Page 188] their troops from North Korea, wanted a joint withdrawal with American troops. Significantly, less than a year earlier, in June 1955, then UN Commander Maxwell Taylor had suggested a compatible plan to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Noting that the Armistice had been an utter failure in preventing the Communists from building up their forces, he argued that the sixteen UNC states should “recognize that the present agreement has, except for this essential [cease-fire] element, out lived its usefulness and should be discarded in recognition of a de facto condition of peace in Korea.”20 He proposed a sequence of actions to achieve this goal: the sixteen UNC representatives should articulate a critique of paragraph 13 of the Armistice; state their intention to observe the cease-fire; say the Armistice was void; and then “offer to withdraw UN forces from Korea if the Communists do likewise.”21 The allies would then search for a commensurate commitment from the Communist side.22 Had this proposal been followed the UNC could have possibly achieved some modicum of peace, though it would have been a major task to stop Rhee from reigniting the civil war.

In the event, the opportunity was lost since few US officials were prepared to participate in such a conference. Instead, over the course of late April and May, State Department representatives told American allies that the United States was prepared to inform the Communists on the Military Armistice Commission that NNSC inspection teams would be required to withdraw immediately from South Korea. Although America’s allies also rejected the Chinese initiative, many diplomats expressed concern about the implications of effectively banning the inspection teams from South Korea. Officials in the British Foreign Office, for example, believed that the United States should not announce the decision in the Military Armistice Commission until after the Chinese and North Koreans had had an opportunity to express their opinion about the negative UNC response to the proposed political conference. Canadian and French representatives expressed fears that the decision to eject the inspection teams would hurt the prospects for the supervisory commissions in Indochina. Only two allies, Belgium and New Zealand, countries with limited influence on Korean issues, expressed principled opposition to the proposed move. The South Korean, Thai, Greek, Turkish, and Filipino representatives supported the US position on the inspection teams. Indeed, many diplomats, including those from the old Commonwealth, expressed some sympathy with the American position, disagreeing mainly with issues of timing.23

On the whole, the allies lacked the forceful opposition needed to get the United States to rethink its strategies. Walter Robertson, the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, recognized, even before the meetings with the allies, that the other UNC members would accept America’s position on the NNSC “if we press our views strongly.”24 NSC 5514, the US statement of policy on Korea, had stated that in taking “such action as is necessary”25 to deal with Communist violations of the Armistice, the United States should not be bound to allied support. Prior agreement with the allies should be sought, “but they should not [End Page 189] be given a veto on US action.”26 The turning point for the United States to continue discussions with its allies was a note written by the president to the acting secretary of state on May 4, 1956, that ordered an acceleration in the planning associated with the stationing of “the newest types of weapons”27 in Korea. The command required, in the first instance, an end to inspections. On May 31 the US representative on the Military Armistice Commission announced a “provisional suspension” of the activities of the NNSC and gave the teams in South Korea one week to withdraw.28 When the Chinese representative to the Commission stated that the PRC was prepared to accept a compromise, originally suggested by Sweden, which permitted the NNSC teams to be stationed at the DMZ but also to be deployed to both Koreas when necessary, the UNC representative closed the discussions. From the allied point of view the Americans had acted unilaterally and had rejected a Chinese compromise position that would have achieved, in a more diplomatic manner, the same goals sought by the UNC. On June 8 British diplomats in Washington petitioned the Americans to order NNSC teams not to withdraw to the DMZ and to call another meeting of the UNC representatives to discuss policy. Despite similar calls by many of the sixteen UNC states, including Australia, New Zealand, France, and Holland, to accept the Chinese offer, the State Department rejected the requests and told its Cold War partners that the teams would be withdrawn by June 9. The policy was fait accompli. The allies were disgruntled and, to a large extent, victims of a US unilateral diplomatic initiative. But the allies were also complicit in supporting the effective termination of the work of the inspection teams, and thus also in further weakening the de facto authority of the 1953 Armistice. For their part, British officials decided not to make any public criticism of US policy.29

Immediately after the incapacitation of the NNSC, the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff moved forward with a strategy to introduce atomic weapons to the peninsula. A New York Times article—almost certainly inspired by a Department of Defense initiative—about the problems created by the Armistice for America’s modernization program, alerted the allies as well as officials in the Department of State to the unaccommodating and single-minded bluntness with which the department pursued its goal. When General Taylor, now chief of staff of the US Army, raised his plan for creating peace in Northeast Asia at a joint Defense-State meeting at the end of July, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Radford, vetoed the proposal. The meeting notes recorded that “Radford appeared skeptical over this idea,”30 but Radford was the leading force in the administration calling for the positioning of atomic weapons on continental Northeast Asia. The JCS planned to introduce these weapons as part of a covert operation, without reporting them to the NNSC.31 An interdepartmental debate over the stationing of atomic weapons in Korea ensued and lasted into the late fall of 1956. “The procedure advocated by Admiral Radford,” Noel Hemmendinger, the Director of the Office of Northeast Asian Affairs, wrote on September 11, “would constitute a violation of the Armistice Agreement. It would maximize [End Page 190] the adverse repercussions among our Allies and provide the Communists with the greatest possible propaganda ammunition.”32 On October 18 Walter Robertson commented that up to this point the Department of State had agreed to a modernization program “short of atomic weapons,” and the “introduction of such weapons could be justified only were we to possess incontrovertible evidence of a similar violation on the part of the Communists. To my knowledge, such evidence is not at hand.”33 In December that year, however, President Eisenhower agreed to a memo from the Department of Defense that recommended a cut in the American army from nineteen to seventeen divisions, along with the modernization of those divisions to include atomic weapons. According to a memo on the new policy, “with respect to Korea, this decision would result in the introduction of the Honest John, the 280 mm. gun, the Corporal and the Redstone.”34 The Honest John, Corporal, and Redstone were atomic-capable missiles developed in the early to mid-1950s, initially capable of travelling up to twenty, 120, and 325 kilometers, respectively. Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi rocket scientist, led the development of the Redstone Missile at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. The 280mm atomic cannon appeared at President Eisenhower’s inaugural parade, and its first atomic test occurred in Nevada on May 25, 1953, the day the UNC put forward its final negotiating position on the Armistice. The cannon fired the atomic shell about twelve kilometers.35

The President’s decision to modernize US equipment in Korea was taken as part of a global strategy to incorporate nuclear weapons into America’s military forces. Eisenhower was sensitive, however, to the high cost of providing aid to the South Korean military and supported the introduction of nuclear weapons there, even though the projected reduction in ROK forces would only save about $60 million annually. He also expressed concern about the need to strengthen the UNC defense against a possible Communist offensive.36 On the latter issue, however, the Chinese had already started to remove their troops from North Korea and were clearly reluctant to engage in further conflict on the peninsula. The buildup on the Communist side occurred for defensive purposes. The decision to station atomic weapons in South Korea was thus escalatory, far beyond the kinds of violations that the Communists had made and seemingly even beyond the bounds of existing national security policy, which stated that the US goal was to develop South Korea’s military so that it would be able to defend the country “short of attack by a major power.”37 A progress report of NSC 5514 in July 1956 noted that South Korea was capable of repelling a North Korean offensive on its own and suggested that in the event of a joint Chinese–North Korean offensive, a “sustained defence” was possible with prompt US assistance. In this light, atomic weapons in South Korea were irrelevant to the strategic war plan. For Secretary Dulles, the main reason for bringing the bombs to Korea was symbolic and psychological, to pressure Syngman Rhee to bow to American pressure and reduce South Korea’s military forces in the near future. Discussion in the Security Council referred to South Korean “blackmail.”38 Rhee was able to get the [End Page 191] United States to commit to the continent, but it was the Americans who were trying to define the parameters of South Korea’s military capacity so that the ROK would fit into a security zone overseen by the exercise of American power in Northeast Asia.39

The United States informed the UK of its intention to station nuclear capable weapons in Korea in late 1956 and began consulting with middle and small power Commonwealth countries in 1957. With all its allies, US policymakers followed a policy of neither confirming nor denying their intention to station atomic warheads in Korea. The weapons were referred to as “atomic-capable” weapons, and America’s closest allies were left wondering if the warheads would be stored on the Korean peninsula. The Commonwealth representatives did try to influence the direction of US policy, but ultimately recognized that diplomatic pressure would not make the United States more forthcoming over its nuclear policy in Korea. “We sympathize with the Americans’ problem,” Foreign Office diplomat Peter Dalton wrote in mid-May 1957, “and would not wish to make more difficult their task of preserving an adequate force in Korea to deter the Communists from any ill-judged attempts to resume hostilities against South Korea.” The major problem, he pondered, “is to determine how to take action in the best way to minimize criticism against the Americans for themselves violating the Armistice Agreement.”40

In April 1957, the State Department invited the representatives of the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to a meeting to discuss equipping two American divisions in the ROK. Admiral Radford gave a briefing in which he legitimized the US position to violate the Armistice by noting the Communists had violated the terms of the agreement and had significantly strengthened their military position in North Korea since the signing of the Armistice. He was less than forthcoming, however, in his presentation of the facts of the military picture. On the critical question of the DPRK air force, for example, Radford told Commonwealth officials that “whereas the Communists had no aircraft at all in North Korea at the time of the Armistice they now have 625 of which 310 are jet fighters.”41 As the Communist representative on the Military Armistice Commission, North Korean Lieutenant General Lee Sang Cho, had earlier pointed out, however, “the Korean-Chinese side had strong air strength during the war.”42 This was true, especially after February 1953, when the North Koreans contributed two air divisions to the joint Chinese–Korean Unified Air Force.43 The Chinese had six to seven air divisions operating over Korea during the war. Prior to the Armistice, however, the air bases for these planes were in Manchuria in order to protect them from American bombing attacks. The Communist side therefore had violated the truce by stationing MiGs on North Korean air bases after signing the Armistice, but their air force was already substantial and growing prior to the end of the war. The difference in military power between the Communists and the UNC was thus not as great as Radford claimed. Defense Department officials also asserted they wanted to return the peninsula to a state of strategic [End Page 192] balance, though they never explained, either to the public or to America’s allies, how nuclear weapons equated with jet fighters. The balance sought by the UNC was, in fact, a major escalation of the ongoing conflict over the peninsula, part of the longer-term militarization of the two Koreas. Indeed, one can trace North Korea’s strategic interest in atomic energy and atomic weapons to the US-UNC decision to introduce atomic weapons to the southern mainland.44

In mid-May 1956, at another meeting in Washington between American, British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand officials, Assistant Secretary of State Walter Robertson discussed an American plan to inform the Communists of the UNC position on the introduction of the atomic-capable weapons in Korea. The meeting went cordially enough until Canadian Minister Saul F. Rae inquired if the UNC might be willing to renegotiate paragraph 13(d) of the Armistice in order to make it easier to introduce the weapons to South Korea. This gave Walter Robertson the opportunity to “launch into a tirade against the Communists and to repeat his favourite theme that no agreement made with the Communists was worth the paper it was printed on.”45 The unexpected outburst led the Canadian minister to stop his line of questioning, but there was a general recognition in the room, as New Zealand representative Sir Leslie Munro stated, that “this is a very much more serious matter than the expulsion of the NNSC teams.” The main purpose of the meeting had been to discuss the draft of the US statement on the violation of paragraph 13(d) and not to seek allied permission for the policy. The decision had already been taken and, as the British Ambassador noted, the general feeling was that “it is better to leave it to the Americans to work out the details.”46

The US government formally told the Communists of its decision to station atomic weapons in South Korea at a meeting of the Military Armistice Commission on June 21, 1957. On June 27, the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China issued a statement arguing that the “action of the United States is not only a flagrant violation of the Korean Armistice Agreement, but also constitutes a threat to peace in the Far East and the world.”47 America, the ministry proclaimed, “must continue to abide by all the provisions of the Armistice Agreement.”48 Additionally, the “other countries on the United Nations Command side, in following the United States in this act of serious sabotage of the Armistice Agreement, also cannot escape the condemnation of the peoples of the world, nor shake off their share of responsibility.”49 British officials had made clear to policymakers in Washington that the best way to deflect international criticism would be to state, in public, the evidence the Americans had acquired about Communist violations of the Armistice. State Department officials initially told their counterparts at the Foreign Office that they would make public such information, but in June 1957 they privately told the British that their evidence could not be published since it would compromise intelligence operations in North Korea and sensitive flights over the country, activities which in and of themselves broke the Armistice Agreement. Writing from Washington to the Foreign Office about [End Page 193] the American government’s decision, British Ambassador Arthur de la Mare observed, “The plain fact is that the Pentagon have let us down completely.”50

The US government delayed the deployment of the weapons to Korea until late January 1958, largely out of an effort to get Rhee to agree to reduce the size of the ROK Army in return for the formal stationing of atomic-capable weapons on the peninsula, though US officials did not tell the Rhee government that the decision had already been made in Washington. Differences between the United States and the Republic of Korea on the force reductions led the US government—pressured by the Department of Defense—to station the weapons before the two sides reached agreement, in the spring of 1958, over an overall military force of 630,000 soldiers, including almost 570,000 army troops.51 When the weapons were brought to Korea in January 1958, however, the allies were not informed of the move and learned of the initiative through newspaper reports.

In February, the Foreign Office sent a telegram to Ambassador de la Mare in Washington, instructing him to inform the State Department that the British and other members of the sixteen nations who had participated in the war ought to have been informed of the timing of the movement of weapons to Korea. The telegram criticized US policy, noting that “we have some cause for complaint about not being informed of this step” and that “we are anxious to be kept au courant with the re-equipment of the US forces in Korea.”52 The British were prepared to accept even a twenty-four-hour notice in advance of such decisions, but the American government made no promises to inform its allies in the future. Ambassador de la Mare reported that Howard Parsons, the director of the Office of Northeast Asian Affairs, had told him that the State Department wanted to maintain the UN character of the forces in Korea, and that officials in the department recognized “they must be reasonably forthcoming with their United Nations allies.”53 The Pentagon, by contrast, “take[s] the more pragmatic view that the United Nations aspect is largely illusory, that it is in fact almost entirely a US operation, that it will be the US who will have to bear the brunt of any military attack, and that it is therefore the US and not other nations who contribute virtually nothing, who determine what is said and what is not.”54

There was some hardheaded truth in the Pentagon’s position. By 1958 the vast bulk of the non-American international troops had left Korea, and the British and others lacked the resources on the peninsula to make strong claims about being informed about sensitive American policy issues. More important, though, they supported their big-power ally’s hegemony in Northeast Asia. The Foreign Office retreated when it received Ambassador de la Mare’s report from Washington. Patrick Dean, the deputy under secretary for state for defence and the chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, did not feel that “we can get anywhere by pressing the Americans at a higher level.”55 At the end of November 1956, Howard Parsons, director of the Office of Northeast Asian Affairs, wrote in his letter to Walter Robertson that paragraph 13(d) was “except for the cease-fire provisions the most important part of the Armistice Agreement.” If the United States followed [End Page 194] the courses of action recommended by the military, “our Allies and world opinion would almost surely consider that our action of May, 1956, and our general posture toward the Armistice Agreement show bad faith.”56 US-UNC diplomacy of the mid-1950s had effectively ended the capacity of either side to oversee the maintenance of the Armistice on the peninsula.

Military Adventurism in the 1960s: The Pueblo Crisis

In the 1950s, North Korean policy toward the UNC and South Korea was largely defensive. As part of a broader policy within the Soviet bloc, the northern regime emphasized peaceful coexistence, the importance of social contact between southerners and northerners, and domestic economic reconstruction. In the early 1960s, two political crises in South Korea—the student-led protests against Syngman Rhee regime’s corrupt April 1960 national election and a coup d’état in May 1961 by a group of middle-ranking officers led by Park Chung Hee (Pak Chŏnghŭi) and Kim Chongp’il—provided the first significant political opening for the North Korean regime to foment discontent within the impoverished southern half of the peninsula. On May 19, 1961, only three days after Park Chung Hee’s coup, a Nodong Sinmun (The Worker’s Newspaper) editorial argued that America’s “running dog” allies, Syngman Rhee and Chang Myŏn, premier of the Second Republic (1960–1961), had been unable to stem the “anti-US and salvation movement of the Korean people, then erupting with the force of a volcano.”57 The 1961 military coup, according to the newspaper, had been a desperate plot by American imperialists to protect their colonial system. Northern propaganda, attempting to encourage revolutionary conflict in the south, called on Korean soldiers, farmers, and workers to rise up against the instigators of the coup: “The officers and men of the South Korean defense forces and people must obstruct the military suppression by the enemy and wage a joint stubborn struggle to restore the free, legal activity of all patriotic parties and social organizations to guarantee the democratic freedom of speech, press, assembly and organisation.”58

These crises of the early 1960s, however, provided only a very partial context for the emergence of a much more aggressive policy toward the south between 1967 and 1969. A key influence shaping northern belligerency was the increasing collaboration between the Park Chung Hee and Lyndon B. Johnson governments to employ South Korean forces in the Vietnam War.59 For the northerners, the South’s support for American imperialism in Southeast Asia symbolized that country’s illegitimacy and subordination to the interests of American colonialism. North Korean officials sought to teach their southern rivals a moral and revolutionary lesson, one that would take advantage of South Korean and American strategic vulnerability vis-à-vis their commitments in Vietnam. Possibly influenced by the growth of the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam and the revolutionary ideals emanating from Mao’s China in 1968, northern [End Page 195] policymakers focused on a strategy of guerrilla infiltration into the south and attacks against South Korean soldiers. North Korea’s aggressive strategy in the late 1960s paralleled American and South Korean military aggression in Vietnam: Kim Il Sung countered South Korea’s growing participation in the war in Southeast Asia with an increase in the intensity of special operations missions against southern military targets. The attacks culminated in the infiltration and attempted assassination of President Park at the presidential Blue House by an elite North Korean commando team of thirty-one soldiers on January 21, 1968.

A major goal of the commando operation was to cause a security crisis in South Korea that would put great pressure on the leadership to return troops from Vietnam. The objective would not only assist the world Communist revolutionary movement, but, even more significantly, it would also press Johnson to send US troops stationed in South Korea to Vietnam. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Blue House, Johnson administration officials threatened to withdraw US troops from South Korea if the ROK did the same in Vietnam. In this way the northerners sought to achieve their major diplomatic objective vis-à-vis the United States: the removal of American troops from the Korean peninsula. If successful, the strategy would reduce military pressure on the Communist powers in the region and provide what DPRK officials perceived as a more favorable political and military context to negotiate unification with the south. The plan relied on the ability of the United States to restrain South Korea from igniting a peninsular war if the north succeeded in killing President Park. North Korean planners understood that US policymakers would do their utmost to avoid a two-front war with Communists in continental Asia, but the northern regime’s provocative revolutionary policy could have led the world into a catastrophic war over Northeast Asia.

Two days after the failed attack on the Presidential mansion, on January 23, 1968, North Korean naval and air units seized an American spy ship, the USS Pueblo, which had been conducting surveillance off North Korea’s east coast. The North Korean military brought the ship and crew to the port city of Wŏnsan. The United States claimed its ship had remained in international waters, but the DPRK portrayed the capture of the Pueblo as a reaction against American violations of the Armistice. On January 27 the North Korean government released a statement declaring that the United States had “intruded deep into the territorial waters” of the DPRK under orders from the Central Intelligence Agency. The American “imperialist aggressors” had “systematically destroyed the armistice agreement” through “ever continuing military provocative acts against the northern half of the Republic.”60 The US military ordered the northern regime to return the sailors at meetings of the Military Armistice Commission on January 23 and 24, and soon turned to provocative military action to back up its demands.61

There is no evidence that the assassination attempt and Pueblo incident were related, but the North’s objectives in seizing the ship may have been to detach the [End Page 196] United States from the South by forcing the former to negotiate directly with the DPRK to release the prisoners. The crisis would highlight, on the international stage, the sovereignty and agency of North Korea while frustrating and isolating the southern regime, raising questions in the South about America’s intentions as South Korea’s big-power overlord. But whatever the intentions of the North Korean regime, the commando infiltration and the capture of the Pueblo brought to the fore the hazards, danger, and contingency of war on the peninsula in the nuclear age.

The Park regime was in a particularly belligerent mood in the late 1960s, and its leaders expressed anger at what they perceived as an American decision to ignore the assassination attempt on President Park and to open secret bilateral negotiations with the DPRK at the Military Armistice Commission. South Korean prime minister Chŏng Ilgwŏn conveyed the regime’s frustration with the United States at a meeting with UN commander Charles Bonesteel and US ambassador to Korea, John Porter. What would the United States do, Chŏng interceded, if “Cuba raided Washington and attacked White House and ROK then began separate talks with Cuba.”62 President Park, who had been drinking heavily throughout the period, expressed anger at what he perceived as UNC appeasement of the enemy. He wanted to retaliate against North Korea, and, as early as January 24, recommended that the UNC destroy the six North Korean camps that trained the special infiltration forces, with the goal to “eliminate the entire unit in one blow.”63

In the United States, contingency planning involved a strong possibility of the renewal of full-scale conflict on the peninsula. At a National Security Council meeting on January 25, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle G. Wheeler, told the president that “in 1950 the North Koreans moved in artillery and moved across the DMZ. I would not discount the possibility of this happening again. I would want the B-52s and the fighter bombers to back up the ground forces.”64 Johnson understood the strategic logic of the plan, noting that the goal would be to “pulverize the enemy before they got across the DMZ.”65 Agreeing, Wheeler replied that “if diplomatic efforts fail there will be pressure to take retaliatory actions against North Koreans. We must be ready to react to what they might do. Although we don’t like to imagine it, there could be a restart of the Korean War.”66

Though intent on constraining Park from responding provocatively to the crisis, the Johnson administration, in response to the loss of the Pueblo, took provocative military action of its own. In the United States, the administration called up reservists in order to demonstrate that America was prepared to fight in Vietnam and, if necessary, in Korea. The American military reinforced the US Air Force in South Korea, bringing some 300 F-4 fighter jets to the peninsula; dispatched three nuclear aircraft carriers to the East Sea; and moved B-52 bombers and KC-135 aerial refueling craft to Okinawa and Guam. “Operation Combat Fox” was the biggest operation of its kind in the history of the US Air Force.67 [End Page 197] According to Hungarian diplomat Karoly Csatorday, the American representative on the Military Armistice Commission had conveyed an ultimatum to his North Korean counterpart at the end of January 1968 which threatened military intervention and the use of atomic weapons if the sailors were not returned.68

The American decision to threaten the use of force also provided the South Koreans with additional opportunities to demand military action: they offered, for example, to cooperate with the Americans on “taking out” Wŏnsan, the port where the northerners brought the Pueblo. Such action, however, would have led to full-scale war on the peninsula. As Cyrus Vance, Johnson’s envoy to Park during the crisis, noted on February 15, “There is a very strong danger of unilateral action by Pak.”69 Military actions by the South that created conflict with the North, however, would involve the Americans: US aircraft were stacked “wing to wing on the six ROK airfields and American military forces are deployed along a key portion of the DMZ—to the West and North of Seoul and across two of the most likely attack routes into South Korea—the prospects of American troops becoming immediately involved in combat with North Korean forces are extremely high.”70 Atomic weapons, positioned at forward-located and isolated hills accessible only by helicopter, would likely have been employed. The overrunning of such locations by the North would have significantly increased the chances of atomic escalation, since American soldiers would not allow the North to capture an atomic bomb.71 The strategic consequences of President Park’s machinations thus mirrored the military situation on the peninsula in the 1950s, when the Atlantic-Commonwealth allies feared Syngman Rhee would unilaterally ignite a major conflict. As a result of breaches of the Armistice and the escalation of tensions on the peninsula, the hair trigger of war had grown more sensitive by the 1960s, as Koreans faced a repetition of the catastrophic social and human costs of war. The American military response to the seizure of the Pueblo was the defining feature of the crisis. It was the decision to threaten to go to war to take back the Pueblo and its sailors, along with the possibilities for further conflict between South and North Korea that these actions generated—and not the seizure of the ship on its own—that caused American allies to respond with alarm to the events in Northeast Asia.

The Pueblo Incident and America’s UNC Allies

President Johnson did not want to go to war over Korea in 1968, partly because he recognized that involvement in a conflict in Northeast Asia would exacerbate domestic protests against the war in Vietnam, polarize public opinion at home, and be disastrous for his administration’s foreign policy goals in Asia and the world. Similarly, military action designed to extricate the sailors would likely only see them killed, something which right-wing Republicans might take advantage of in an election year, or which might inflame public opinion [End Page 198] toward much more aggressive military actions. Especially in the initial stages of the crisis, American policymakers sought to placate domestic public opinion in order to maintain the thrust of the US government’s commitments in the war in Vietnam. Over the long term, these considerations checked the escalatory potential of the crisis and forced the Johnson administration to consider diplomatic solutions to returning the sailors. The US decision to bring the crisis to the attention of the UN Security Council was a provocative move from the point of view of North Korea, which had denied the legitimacy of previous UN Security Council resolutions during the war in the early 1950s. The discussion of the crisis in the UN Security Council was part of an intentional policy to provoke the North Koreans, but it was also designed to stifle those members of the public and Congress who demanded an even tougher stance than the administration was willing to engage in. In the Senate, for example, Senator Bourke Hickenlooper of Iowa responded to the loss of the Pueblo by fuming that the United States should “send a fleet into that area, level our guns on the shore, and serve an ultimatum of the release of the ship and the men.”72 By contrast, on January 24, 1968, Samuel Berger, head of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the State Department, privately assured British Counsellor John Killick that “we will not go wild.”73

The allied response to the crisis focused on finding ways to pressure the North Koreans to release the ship and sailors. The Commonwealth allies did not question the US decision to send additional naval and air forces to Northeast Asia, and allied diplomacy was not geared toward constraining US actions in the region. Diplomatic activity—for example, by British and Canadian officials—initially centered on getting the Soviet Union to constrain its North Korean ally or to act as a mediator by facilitating a negotiated settlement between the United States and North Korea. In late January, Canada’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, Robert Ford, told Soviet Foreign Ministry official Vasily Safronchuk that the seizure of the Pueblo was an “intolerably provocative act towards a great power,” and that it was in the interests of the Soviet Union “to do whatever was possible to prevent [the incident] from developing into a larger dispute.”74 During discussions in Moscow and New York in January and February, however, Soviet diplomats informed Commonwealth diplomats that there was no crisis, that the North Koreans had acted on their own, and that a negotiated settlement required the United States to pull its naval forces away from the shores of North Korea. In New York, Canadian diplomat George Ignatieff arranged a meeting between the Soviet and American ambassadors to the United Nations. These discussions revealed a Soviet willingness to engage the issue, but a refusal to act as a mediator between the UNC and DPRK. Discussions about the Pueblo affair at the Security Council, Soviet officials reminded the allies, alienated the North Koreans and made a swift return of the sailors unlikely.75

Commonwealth diplomats also expressed concern about the South Korean government’s belligerent stance toward the attack on the Blue House and the [End Page 199] Pueblo incident. British ambassador in South Korea, Ian Mackenzie, told the South Korean vice minister of foreign affairs that the ROK would forfeit the sympathy of the free world if it initiated a conflict along the DMZ.76 The South Korean government, however, had also taken the diplomatic initiative and attempted to get its allies to make a public reiteration of the 1953 greater sanctions statement, which had warned the Communist side that further conflict would likely not be confined to the Korean peninsula. The original statement, therefore, carried a not-so-very veiled warning that further conflict would almost certainly involve the use of atomic weapons against China. In Washington, State Department country director for Korea, Benjamin Fleck, privately told the British counselor that “the administration would not favour a declaration [since] … the Americans were very anxious to get the question of the Pueblo settled and would not wish to take their eye off the ball by this extraneous issue.”77 The members of the old British Commonwealth were also reluctant to re-issue such a collective warning, although the British Labour foreign secretary, George Brown, had declared in Parliament that Britain continued to adhere to the original statement. Officials in the British Foreign Office, however, refused to participate in a collective endeavor to challenge the Communists. British diplomats wanted to limit Britain’s military commitment in Northeast Asia and to support US efforts to return the sailors of the USS Pueblo. They were also worried that UK support for a collective declaration might exacerbate tensions and encourage the South Koreans to ask Britain for additional troops or other forms of military assistance. Mackenzie was not alone in his fears that a collaborative allied statement might embolden the South Koreans to “initiate some military move.”78 UK Foreign Office efforts to constrain the South Koreans thus complemented efforts to support the American goal of returning the crew of the Pueblo. Indeed, Britain’s firm support for American objectives in the crisis was partly fueled by domestic concerns associated with balance of payments problems. A memo prepared in early February 1968 for British prime minister Harold Wilson’s forthcoming meeting with President Johnson noted that for “Britain or other signatories of the 1953 Declaration to send additional troops to South Korea at this juncture would in our view be wrong,” as it would only “raise tension both in Korea and internationally and cut across the efforts being made diplomatically to resolve the ‘Pueblo’ affair.”79 Despite the escalation of tensions that American military actions in Northeast Asia represented, the memo also suggested that the prime minister tell the president that “[w]e are most grateful for the contribution which the United States has made, through the United Nations Command, to the preservation of peace in Korea over the years.”80

Other members of the Commonwealth raised concerns about issuing a public statement in support of the ROK. The Canadian government, for example, had been approached by the South Koreans and had “given a temporising reply and hoped to have to say nothing further.” The Australians shared the same [End Page 200] views as the UK.81 Two other states that had contributed troops to the UNC in the early 1950s, France and Ethiopia, also rejected the ROK initiative to issue a new greater sanctions statement. In early February, French ambassador to Korea, Roger Chambard, emphasized to the Korean vice minister of foreign affairs in Seoul that the “Pueblo incident could not be linked with [the] attack on [the] President’s residence and was for the Americans to settle.”82 With respect to a meeting of the signatories of the 1953 statement and a reiteration of the original announcement, he told the vice minister that “there was little hope of [the] French Government responding to either request.”83 After the Suez Crisis of 1956, Haile Selassie’s government in Ethiopia developed close ties with the nonaligned movement, which during the Pueblo incident had been trying to arrange, through the United Nations, a meeting between the North Koreans and Americans in a neutral capital, possibly Geneva. As a result, Selassie did not want to compromise his relations with the Afro-Asian world by issuing an updated statement.84

De-Escalation and Crisis Resolution

To enhance the chances of getting North Korea to return the US sailors, American diplomats selectively accepted advice given to them by Communist diplomats, recommendations sometimes filtered through their UN allies. These actions included heeding warnings from North Korean and other Communist sources not to pursue discussions about the incident at the United Nations, avoiding the use of a mediator and negotiating directly with the North Koreans, pulling the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise away from its position near the DPRK in the East Sea, and revising a UNC letter at the request of the North Koreans in order to “eliminate the allegation that the N. Koreans had taken the initiative over the Pueblo incident.”85 North Korean officials also made compromises; for example, agreeing to negotiate through the Military Armistice Commission, even though their first choice was a neutral site. The North Korean regime early on expressed its intent to resolve the issue if the United States government issued a formal apology. This framework to return the American servicemen had been used in a 1964 case when two US helicopter pilots in DPRK custody were returned to the UNC after the issuance of a letter saying that the men had violated the territorial sovereignty of the DPRK. Though progress on negotiations was slow, the United States eventually signed an apology saying the Pueblo had spied on the DPRK and that America would henceforth ensure that no American ships would again violate DPRK territorial waters. Major General Gilbert Woodward, who signed the apology, stated publicly—both before and after he signed the statement—that his signature did not imply US acceptance of guilt. After the DPRK released the US soldiers in late December 1968, the US government publicly revoked its apology.86 [End Page 201]

Illusive Peace and the Failure of Diplomacy

The peaceful resolution of the crisis, rooted in President Lyndon Johnson’s effort to maintain America’s war effort in Southeast Asia as well as South Korea’s military commitment to that conflict, obfuscated a broader historical trend in South Korea—the accelerated militarization of the country since the 1953 Armistice. The assassination attempt on Park and the loss of the Pueblo generated opportunities for the Park Chung Hee regime not only to advocate military reprisals against North Korea but also to obtain significant additional military aid from the United States as part of an implicit agreement not to challenge the United Nations commander’s monopoly on retaliatory violence and to maintain South Korea’s 49,000 troops in Vietnam.87 The US administration negotiated an extra $100 million aid package for the South Koreans, designed to placate the country’s leadership over the Blue House and Pueblo crises. The agreement included a squadron of modern planes, arms for domestic reserve forces, assistance to the ROK police, and American rifles for South Korean counterinsurgency units.88 Even as American officials concluded the deal, President Johnson suggested that President Park fulfill his December 1967 tentative commitment to send 6,000 additional South Korean troops to Vietnam. The South Koreans, however, wanted more resources. Prime Minister Chŏng Ilgwŏn stressed in the late winter of 1968 “that what is needed to obtain further ROK participation in Vietnam is [a] very dramatic program” from the United States. He advocated “a larger ROK troop contribution matched by a larger US aid program—which will clearly strengthen, as opposed to maintain, ROK military strength in [the] country.”89 South Korean government requests for more funding were supplemented by initiatives from American army officials, especially UN Commander General Charles Bonesteel, who in late November 1968 “expressed concern about the inadequate level of this year’s MAP [Military Assistance Program].”90 By that time the US Army and South Korean officials faced many impediments to their military objectives, including America’s deteriorating balance of payments position, President-elect Nixon’s commitment to withdraw American troops from Vietnam, powerful domestic opposition to the war, and accusations in the United States about the use of South Korea’s “mercenary” soldiers in Vietnam. In mid-1968, a paper prepared in the Policy Planning Council of the State Department even projected the withdrawal of the US Second Division from South Korea in the 1972 fiscal year.91

While the future of US–South Korea relations may have appeared uncertain in 1969, the additional $100 million provided to the ROK as a result of the military crises in early 1968 meant that US military assistance to Park’s regime in 1968 amounted to $292 million, almost twice the amount that South Korea spent in 1967 on its military forces ($183 million).92 The United States and South Korea went forward with the accelerated military buildup despite the fact that, as American sources admitted, the intelligence community had poor information about North Korea’s military capabilities. According to intelligence sources, the [End Page 202] North Korean military stood at 368,000, compared to South Korea’s 600,000 soldiers. The North Korean air force was stronger than the southern force, but was mostly obsolete, and the American air force more than compensated for the northern advantage over the south. Additionally, the South Korean air force was backed by US jets with atomic weapons, and the militarization accompanying the Pueblo crisis resulted in an additional 150 US jets permanently stationed in South Korea.93 Between 1953 and 1967 the United States had provided almost $6 billion in military and economic assistance to the ROK, compared to about $1.3 billion that the Sino-Soviet alliance gave to the DPRK. In 1968 American intelligence indicated that North Korea, with its population of 12.5 million, spent a whopping 18 percent of its GDP on its military forces.94 In this way, the escalatory militarization of South Korea made a significant contribution to the development of the DPRK’s authoritarian-mobilization regime.

The US-Allied Diplomatic Background to the 1976 JSA War Crisis

In dealing with the Pueblo crisis, the Johnson administration felt constrained in its belligerency toward North Korea by several overriding factors: the primacy of prosecuting the war in Vietnam; the need, for domestic political reasons, ones closely related to the war in Vietnam, to extricate the American sailors safely from the DPRK; a desire to avoid full-scale conflict; and an intention not to make the crisis a major issue which would hurt the Democratic Party in the 1968 Presidential elections. These policy constraints were absent in the JSA war crisis of August 1976, the next major clash on the Korean peninsula, sparked by the US reaction to the murder of two US officers by North Korean soldiers. The 1976 crisis provided a context in which the Ford administration attempted to strengthen the position of the United States vis-à-vis DPRK challenges to its hegemony in Northeast Asia and the international system.

The 1976 JSA war crisis occurred in the wake of three fundamental policy shifts in American strategy toward Asia and the world: the US military withdrawal from Vietnam; a decision to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China; and changes in Congressional attitudes toward the deployment of US troops overseas, particularly in areas like South Korea, which were ruled by authoritarian regimes committing human rights abuses. These changes opened new possibilities for settling the Korean War in ways that were not possible up to that point. They provided incentive for the Nixon administration to remove US soldiers from South Korea and enhanced the possibility of peace discussions with the signatories of the Korean Armistice as well as the Republic of Korea, which did not adhere to the Armistice.

Sino-American normalization meetings led representatives of the two Korean governments to seek bilateral discussions of their own, if only to demonstrate [End Page 203] their agency and the autonomy to take diplomatic initiatives beyond the bounds of their big power allies. In 1972, on July 4, a date possibly chosen as symbolic, the two governments issued a joint statement that announced their intention to unify the country peacefully, “without being subject to external imposition or interference.”95 Both sides would facilitate ongoing meetings of their Red Cross societies and establish a telephone line between Seoul and P’yŏngyang “to prevent unexpected military incidents.”96 The goal was to “mitigate increased tensions that have arisen between the South and the North.”97 While southern officials were prepared to initiate economic and cultural exchanges with the DPRK, northern negotiators asked the south to end the American military occupation of Korea, to agree to a mutual reduction in military forces, and to end the most recent ROK force modernization program negotiated with the United States in 1971. The bilateral negotiations broke down in 1973 over a number of issues, including South Korea’s anti-Communist and national security laws and its abduction of Kim Dae Jung (Kim Taejung) in August.98 Both sides returned to their mutually antagonistic public positions.99

In the early and mid-1970s, in the context of ongoing disputes about the Vietnam War and rightful place of American power in the world, the American public and Congress debated the United States’ commitment to maintaining troops on the Korean peninsula. Prominent newspapers and magazines like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Christian Science Monitor published articles by thoughtful journalists and academics critical of the status quo in US-ROK relations. In the latter magazine, for example, Edwin Reischauer, a historian and former US ambassador to Japan, wrote in 1974 that the United States should not meet its existing military commitments in South Korea, even if war broke out between the north and south.100 Reischauer argued before the US Congress that President Park’s “brutal authoritarianism” invited the possibility of a North Korean attack. Congressman Robert Nix, chair of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations and Movements, asserted that the United States should withdraw its troops entirely from mainland Asia. “The time for change is now,” he pleaded, noting that “all we have to do as a first step is to withdraw support from non-democratic nations which will not help themselves.”101 Other commentators noted that article 32 of the 1973 US Foreign Assistance Act prohibited assistance to states that keep political prisoners.102 In early 1976, the Washington-based think tank, the Center for Defense Information, founded in 1972 by retired Rear Admiral Gene La Roque, prepared a report on Korea that stated the United States should not involve itself in a war started by the Koreans and that nuclear weapons were not needed to defend the ROK and “ought to be promptly withdrawn.”103 By this time the Ford administration was on the defensive, committed to maintaining US troops in South Korea and determined to protect the ROK from diplomatic efforts by the North to isolate it in the international arena.

Diplomatic pressure on American policy toward the ROK also emerged from North Korea, which now pursued a strategy keyed on garnering international [End Page 204] support for resolutions backed by the nonaligned movement calling for joint DPRK-US negotiations to settle the war, the dissolution of the UNC, the withdrawal of American troops from the Korean peninsula, and the negotiation of a peace treaty. As early as the summer of 1972, a meeting of nonaligned foreign ministers in Georgetown, Guyana, passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of foreign soldiers from South Korea. The following June, the UN voted to allow the DPRK to attend UN meetings as an observer, and a summit meeting of the nonaligned powers in Algiers in the fall of 1973 implicitly accepted the northern unification strategy, resolving that the UN admit North Korea as a member state after both Koreas created a single confederation.104 The high point of North Korean diplomacy occurred in the fall of 1975 when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution, 3390B, stating that “a durable peace cannot be expected so long as the present state of Armistice is kept as it is in Korea.”105 The resolution called upon “the real parties to the Armistice Agreement” to replace the Armistice “with a peace agreement as a measure to ease tension and maintain and consolidate peace in Korea,”106 something which required the dissolution of the UNC and the removal of its troops from South Korea. The US soon pressed its friends in the UN to support its own counter-resolution, which reiterated the now tired allied position that the “Armistice Agreement remains indispensable to the maintenance of peace and security in the area.” Resolution 3390A expressed the hope that “all the parties directly concerned will enter into negotiations on new arrangements designed to replace the Armistice Agreement, reduce tensions and ensure lasting peace in the Korean peninsula.”107

The latter resolution purposely remained silent on the issue of withdrawing troops, since the Ford administration had inherited a national security policy adopted by President Nixon in March 1974 that agreed to retain the US troop presence in South Korea. The changes envisaged for the Armistice were circumscribed in such a way as to “maintain and improve ROK security.”108 The main change in the Armistice would involve the termination of the UNC and its replacement with American and South Korean military commanders “as our side’s signatory to the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement.”109 A South Korean general would replace the American representative on the Military Armistice Commission, though an American would remain in charge of the United States and South Korean forces on the peninsula. The two Koreas would sign a nonaggression pact, while the Communists would accept the presence of US military forces in the South in return for a vague promise that the United States would “reduce and ultimately withdraw U.S. forces as the security situation on the Peninsula is stabilized.”110 There was no discussion of negotiating a broader peace treaty, and President Nixon agreed that there should be no “other changes in the Armistice Agreement.”111 Given the inability of the North and South to negotiate with each other after 1973, the chances of success of the strategy were extremely slim. The suggested abolition of the UNC reflected a reality recognized by the DPRK—that the UNC had effectively ceased to function as a [End Page 205] multilateral military organization soon after the negotiation of the Armistice. In 1975, the government of Thailand, one of the last remaining regimes with troops serving in Korea, announced its decision to remove its soldiers from the Korean peninsula.112

The major objectives of the negotiating stance designed by the Nixon and Ford administrations between 1974 and 1976 were to contain North Korea’s success in international forums, to placate domestic critics of the American role in Korea, to enhance the possibilities of maintaining and accelerating military US aid to the ROK, and to strengthen the UN side in the Korea debates at the UN General Assembly. American policy toward the ROK, now designed around a “Koreanization” plan to modernize the South Korean military forces in order to preserve American influence in continental Asia on the cheap, contributed to the ongoing conflict on the peninsula. Despite the consistent refrain heard over the decades after 1953, that the Armistice maintained the peace on the Korean peninsula, in many ways the reverse was true—the Armistice had preserved the state of war, and the constant violations of the agreement by both sides had only accelerated the arms buildup on the peninsula. Starting with the introduction of atomic weapons in 1958, the UNC had led the way in escalating the militarization of the peninsula, and the various crises after the 1950s had provided additional impetus to this trend. Both sides designed diplomacy around means, not of finding peaceful solutions to the conflict, but of violating the Armistice without igniting full-fledged military operations.

America’s UN Allies, the UN Korean Question, and the US-ROK Alliance, 1974–76

After the 1960s, significant structural changes occurred in allied relationships vis-à-vis South Korea. The growing strength of the South Korean economy began to pull countries like the UK and Canada into closer alignment with the ROK’s foreign policies. In 1973, Canada established its first embassy in the ROK, after decades of conducting bilateral diplomacy with South Korea through its embassy in Tokyo. In the 1970s, Japan and Germany played increasingly important roles in international affairs, including those related to Korea. This was partly a function of German and Japanese postwar economic growth, the entry of West Germany into the UN in 1973, and the impact of the normalization of relations between Japan and South Korea in 1965.

The mid-1970s, however, were also years when American allies actively considered establishing diplomatic relations with the DPRK. Australia recognized North Korea in 1974, and the New Zealand government, according to the assistant head of the Asian Affairs Division, “was under very strong pressure, both from the North Koreans and from elements within their own Labour party to recognize North Korea.”113 The British Labour government of Harold Wilson [End Page 206] was also seriously considering recognizing the DPRK. As a result of diplomatic representations from South Korea and the United States, the UK became concerned about not hurting its economic chances in the South Korean market and about North Korean foreign policy intentions; the UK did not act on its inclination to establish diplomatic relations with the northern regime. As William Bentley, head of the Far Eastern Department, minuted in late 1974, “the South Koreans and to a lesser extent, the Americans, who bear the burden of peacekeeping on the Korean peninsula, have represented strongly to us that an early British recognition of the north would lead to a number of other countries following suit,” something which would significantly undermine South Korea’s position in the international system vis-à-vis the DPRK.114 Japan had similarly been targeted by the United States and South Korea for its willingness to work with the DPRK. When President Park approached President Ford about his concerns about Japan’s “hasty approaches to North Korea,” Ford reassured Park that US officials had informed Japanese policymakers that “it would not be helpful to expand Japanese–North Korean relations on a rapid basis since that will destroy the balance necessary for constructive solutions of problems between the North and South.”115 Japan stopped issuing Import Export Bank loans to the DPRK in 1975, partly as a result of such diplomatic discussions, but also because of the failing North Korean economy.116

During this period the United States worked with its UN allies to stem debate in the UN on the Korean question, with the goal of preventing the passage of a resolution that would reflect poorly on the ROK, US diplomacy, and the presence of American troops in the southern republic. Officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office supported these broad objectives—indeed some British diplomats expressed concern that the State Department did not take the non-aligned challenge at the United Nations seriously enough. A Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) telegram dated April 23, 1975, to the UK embassy in Washington pointed out that “prospects for the next General Assembly strike us as threatening and time does not seem to be on our side…. By far the most effective action open would be to wind up the UN Command while preserving the 1953 Armistice agreement.”117 The prospects of eliminating the UNC diminished, however, with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. By mid-May US officials were stating privately to their main allies that the prospects of unilaterally dismantling the UNC were no longer possible because of a “fear of giving the wrong signals to the other side.”118

In order to coordinate diplomatic representations to governments, especially those within the nonaligned movement, and to shape their position on the debate on Korea at the United Nations, the allies formed a coordinating group to help lobby for the passage of a US draft resolution—the origins of 3390A—and tried to block North Korea’s allies from passing a resolution detrimental to perceived US-ROK-UN interests. The United States wanted to attract as many cosponsors of the resolution as possible to indicate support for their position. The original [End Page 207] draft resolution, however, was cosponsored by the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and the United States. In the summer of 1975 America’s allies began to send messages to selected embassies around the world to garner support for the resolution. On July 29 an FCO telegram instructed UK posts that “the Americans are naturally assuming prime responsibility for lobbying support, and you should therefore liaise with your US colleagues before taking action. Our help is nevertheless likely to be appreciated, especially in countries where our influence could be decisive.”119 It was likely that those states in the UN that supported North Korea’s negotiating stance would table a draft resolution “calling for the withdrawal of all UN and foreign troops from South Korea.” In this case, the FCO underlined, “the greater the support that can be mobilized at an early stage for our resolution, the better.”120

The draft resolution critical of the presence of US troops in South Korea attracted significant support within the UN General Assembly, particularly from countries with colonial or semi-colonial pasts, and the failure of the United States and its allies to prevent the passage of 3390B made them more determined to control discussion on the Korean item at the 1976 General Assembly meetings. The Nixon and Ford administrations’ efforts to silence international opposition were also designed to contain domestic protests against the stationing of US soldiers in South Korea. America’s allies were aware of the discontent in the United States with American policy toward the ROK, and some governments—particularly Australia, and to a lesser extent also Canada, Holland, and New Zealand—favored a more liberal policy than the United States pursued at the time. On the whole, however, America’s allies tended to support the Nixon and Ford administrations’ Korea policy in international forums. Additionally, allied positions on the Korean item at the UN were part of broader goals to limit the influence of the nonaligned powers, and a function of the closer political and, especially, economic relations which South Korean diplomats and businessmen had established with their country’s international allies since the late 1960s.

Over the course of 1975 and 1976 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger continued to argue in his public diplomacy that the Korean Armistice could be replaced with other security arrangements. Privately, Kissinger revealed his thoughts about Korea during an intimate discussion, in September 1975, with Chinese foreign minister Qiao Guanhua. Referring to North Korea, the secretary told his counterpart that “at the right time we are prepared to talk with sides that we have not talked to before.”121 Qiao did not raise the issue of a peace treaty, and Kissinger’s diplomacy was designed to find ways of sustaining the Armistice. “One problem,” Kissinger mused, was that “if the U.N. Command is abolished, we have to find some way to sustain the Armistice arrangement.”122 When Qiao, who had served as an adviser to the Chinese delegation during the Korean Armistice talks, stated that the US had exaggerated the threat from North Korea and should remove its troops from the peninsula, Kissinger replied, “You won’t agree with me, but I do not think it is in your interests to see another precipitate withdrawal [End Page 208] of American power.”123 Qiao, partly acquiescing to his host, told Kissinger: “Everyone will be pleased if this question can be resolved this year. But it will not be terrible if it is not settled this year.”124

In the late spring of 1976, Kissinger again planned a public announcement about America’s Korea policy. When the Department of State revealed to its allies that the secretary of state would reiterate existing US policy on Korea in his forthcoming public speech, Canadian and New Zealand diplomats asserted that the secretary should make a more concerted effort to have the speech appeal to the public and include a statement that the UNC hoped ultimately to negotiate a new peace treaty or peace agreement with the Communist side. American and South Korean diplomats strongly opposed this proposal, and Kissinger’s speech, delivered on July 22, repeated the Ford administration’s willingness to “negotiate a new basis for the Armistice or to replace it with more permanent arrangements in any form acceptable to all the parties.”125 Such arrangements, however, could only be negotiated through discussions between the two Koreas, complemented by multilateral negotiations between China, the United States, and the two Koreas. The Ford administration’s position on the two Koreas prior to the UN discussions on Korea in the fall of 1976 had, if anything, hardened since 1974. In late July 1976, for example, the US ambassador to the United Nations, William Scranton, told the Yugoslav federal secretary for foreign affairs, Milos Minic, about the legal difficulties “of removing the UN flag, because North Korea had said, if the UN Command is dissolved, the armistice agreement would cease to exist. Therefore, a decision is needed on how to maintain the armistice before broader negotiations start on how to resolve the Korean problem.”126

Secretary Kissinger’s July 22 proposal occurred a few weeks before the start of the Fifth Nonaligned Summit in Colombo, an important international venue for North Korean diplomacy. North Korea was accepted as a member of the nonaligned movement in the summer of 1975, and sent over two hundred representatives to this congress—an indication of their determination to shape the nonaligned movement’s discussions on the Korean issue. Since the resolution produced by the meeting would significantly shape the fall UN General Assembly resolution and therefore also the tactics to be pursued by the United States and its allied “core group,”127 the discussions at the Colombo summit were closely monitored by the ROK, the United States, and their allies.

Even before the summit finished on August 19, a coalition of nonaligned and Communist countries, initially comprising twenty-three states, cosponsored a UN draft resolution on Korea that called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the Korean peninsula, the abolition of the UNC, the replacement of the Armistice with a peace treaty, and the reunification of the two Koreas “without the interference of any outside forces.”128 In this context, the United States and its allies decided quickly to introduce their own resolution to the UN, and to do so without priority. This meant the debate would occur under the terms of a supplementary item, under General Assembly procedural rule 14, and not as an [End Page 209] emergency item (rule 15). Over the summer of 1976 there had been an inconclusive and somewhat divisive debate in the core negotiating group over this issue, with the United States, ROK, UK, Germany, and Japan favoring moving the resolution forward as a priority item, and Canada, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, Belgium, and New Zealand preferring the supplementary procedure of tabling an item within thirty days of the start of a session. The main argument of the former group was that a priority item provided flexibility, including the right to avoid a vote on their resolution in the event that the debate went against their perceived interests.129 The latter governments felt that giving the debate a sense of urgency contradicted statements by allied representatives that they hoped to avoid a contentious debate in the UN General Assembly, but had been forced to engage the discussion in the UN only as a result of the other side’s decision to force the issue. North Korea’s difficulty in achieving its goals at Colombo, the introduction of a draft resolution on Korea by the Communists and nonaligned states, as well as underlying tensions in the core group over the terms of their proposal, convinced the pro-priority states that they would be better off tabling their draft resolution under rule 14, thirty days before the beginning of the Thirty-First UN General Assembly session. Doubts remained, however, about the ability of the core group and its allies to prevent the other side’s pro-peace treaty resolution from being debated and passed, and thus gaining prominence for a second straight year in the international community.130

The JSA War Crisis of 1976

The 1976 War Crisis was deeply rooted in America’s involvement in Korea’s civil conflict, but unfolded amid a major US-UN-ROK initiative to stop a resolution favorable to North Korean diplomatic objectives from gaining significant support in the forthcoming United Nations General Assembly debates. The immediate origin of the crisis, however, was the first annual large-scale coordinated military operation between Korean and American troops, “Exercise Team Spirit,” sometimes referred to as Ŭlchi Hullyŏn or Ŭlchi–Focus Lens. Team Spirit combined two exercises, up to then occurring independently of each other: a US-UNC exercise called Focus Lens, which had started in 1954; and a South Korean exercise which began after the Pueblo crisis, called Ŭlchi after the famous seventh-century Korean general Ŭlchi Mundŏk, who turned back an attacking Chinese army. This military exercise was the largest in the world and employed over 100,000 troops by the late 1970s, a number which doubled in the 1980s. The United States and the ROK military scheduled the first exercise at a very strategic and sensitive time in US–North Korea relations. The exercise served as a showcase of America’s military support for its South Korean ally, while highlighting the new offensive-minded UNC military strategy that pressed American and South Korean units and guns to forward front line positions along the DMZ. According [End Page 210] to the new UNC strategic doctrine, the next Korean War would be fought at the DMZ. For North Korean officials, Team Spirit was an unannounced provocation that further exacerbated relations between the US-UNC-ROK alliance and the DPRK. It provoked a DPRK news release on August 5, which asserted that the strategic situation on the Korean peninsula had worsened after the United States’ defeat in Indochina. The southern and American anti-Communist commanders had proclaimed a “war-time system” throughout the ROK and “military drills and ‘war-time mobilization exercises’ are being conducted every day.” American and South Korean “puppet army” units “have been deployed in battle order for attack.”131 The American army had made the ROK its “forward defense zone” in Asia and had accelerated “preparations for war” against the DPRK, “while introducing more and more quantities of nuclear weapons and other up-to-date mass-destruction weapons into South Korea.”132 Referring to the Korean question at the UN, the northerners argued that the United States “should give up its ‘two Koreas’ plot and implement the resolution of the 30th session of the UN General Assembly on dissolving the ‘UN Command,’ withdrawing all the foreign troops stationed in South Korea under the United Nations flag and replacing the Armistice Agreement with a peace agreement.”133 During the summer crisis of 1976 the northern propaganda statement was used by the UNC to indicate North Korea’s aggressive intentions, though no word was spoken of the military exercises which instigated the outburst.

The 1976 incident can be traced to a tree which was blocking the view between two US-UNC guard posts at the Joint Security Area. There had been a long history of skirmishes and conflicts in the area, even though article 6 of the Armistice Agreement prohibited either side from engaging in “hostile acts” within the zone. Article 17 of the agreement required the Communist and UNC commanders to cooperate with each other so as to “insure complete compliance with all of the provisions” of the Armistice. Over several decades, both sides had come to joint agreements before doing things that altered the topography or structures in the JSA. On August 6, however, without prior North Korean assent, an ROK team of soldiers attempted to cut the tree down; a North Korean guard told them to stop, and they complied. On August 18, a joint US-ROK team of workers led by two American officers attempted to cut some of the tree’s branches, again an infraction of existing practices and provocative to the North Koreans. When confronted by North Korean guards this time, the work party did not stop. The North then tried to force an end to the work and a fight broke out. When the US-ROK team initially seemed to be winning the struggle, the North Koreans called for reinforcements. Overwhelmed and attacked from behind, two American officers were brutally struck and killed with clubs and the blunt side of the axes that were carried into the area by the soldiers to chop the trees.

The tree-trimming event was not an innocuous act of gardening, but a calculated provocation, repeated twice. The North Korean reaction was brutal, though as some American and British officials recognized, probably not designed—if [End Page 211] indeed it was planned—to kill Americans. The event, however, ignited one of the peninsula’s most intense military and political crises. In Washington, with President Ford attending the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Henry Kissinger led a series of high-level meetings with the Washington Special Actions Group to determine the American response. “We had no authority to prune the tree,” Kissinger correctly pointed out at the second meeting with the group on August 19.134 His instinct, however, was belligerent, and he recommended destroying the DPRK guardhouse, since the strike was likely to kill those who had attacked and murdered the American soldiers. At the first meeting of the Washington Special Actions Group he had told the committee that the United States should escalate tensions with North Korea to the point that “the North Koreans begin to wonder what those crazy American bastards are doing or are capable of doing in this election year.”135 His response, possibly shaped by Nixon’s “madman theory,” was thus one purported to characterize North Korean diplomacy.

Kissinger’s reaction had in some ways been preordained by the North Korean downing of an American spy plane, the EC-121, in mid-April 1969. Then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger told the British ambassador in Washington the next month that another attack on an American naval craft “would be followed by immediate and drastic measures.”136 Kissinger learned lessons from the United States’ response to the incident—namely, to prepare military alternatives rapidly.137 In August 1976, the United States quickly raised the military alert to DEFCON 3, one short of the stage meaning that war would be inevitable, and agreed to send three B-52 bombers over South Korea from Japan as part of a much bigger show of force surrounding the centerpiece of a new US plan to cut down the tree. The bombers would be programmed to appear on DPRK radar just before the start of “Operation Bunyan.”

When sixteen US engineers began to cut the large tree on August 21, they were accompanied by a thirty-person protection squad, sixty-four South Korean Taekwondo special forces soldiers, and one of the most threatening and powerful shows of military force in the twentieth century: flying overhead were three B-52 bombers, American and Korean F-4s and F-5s, Cobra attack helicopters, and an American rifle company flying in twenty other helicopters.138 The US aircraft carrier, Midway and its task force, had already been positioned in the East Sea, and backup military forces were on the ground, prepared for a possible nuclear war—a doomsday scenario—in case the North Koreans resisted the tree-cutting procedure. According to the military plan, if the northern soldiers began to shoot at the soldiers in the JSA, “the mission becomes one of rapid extraction of forces from close contact relying primarily on artillery covering fire.” In that case, the Joint Chiefs of Staff would await a “high level Washington decision.”139 At the end of August, President Ford informed his cabinet that the government had been “prepared to take other military actions had the need developed.”140 In reporting the events, the British ambassador in Seoul, R. S. Bates, dramatically underlined [End Page 212] the point that the American response to the killings of the two soldiers was “as near as we ever have and nearer, I trust, than we ever shall again to a renewal of war on the Korean peninsula.” He soberly observed, “the US Ambassador who flew into Seoul that morning, having been recalled from leave, had serious doubts whether the aircraft would land before the missiles began to fall.”141 As the under secretary of state for political affairs, Philip Habib, had reminded the Washington Special Actions Group, “Technically speaking any introduction of forces into Korea is illegal. We have done this thousands of times and the North Koreans have always complained. They do it too. The introduction of any weapons not there at the time of the agreement is illegal.”142

Not surprisingly, the American-UNC mobilization struck great fear into the North Korean regime. An American intelligence communications analyst listening to North Korean radio commented that the operation “blew their fucking minds. We scared the living shit out of them.”143 Considering the horrific experience of the country during the Korean War, the regime was terrified that the United States and the South Koreans would initiate a full-scale war. Immediately after the downing of the tree, the American representative at the Military Armistice Commission received a message from Kim Il Sung (Kim Ilsŏng) expressing the regretful killings several days earlier. At a meeting of the Commission a few days later, the North Koreans suggested that both sides reach a mutual agreement to separate their military forces at the JSA in order to prevent future conflict. On the same day, August 25, North Korean officials met with diplomats from the Eastern Bloc stationed in P’yŏngyang and “requested that brotherly Socialist countries undertake a vast international political campaign, to condemn the American imperialists who are committing acts meant to provoke a new war in Korea.”144

The United States used the crisis as part of its own propaganda to strengthen its position in the forthcoming United Nations debate on Korea. On August 19 the Department of State sent out instructions to twenty-three of its diplomatic posts, informing them of the core group’s strategy for the Korean issue at the forthcoming United Nations General Assembly meetings. Each post was to “promptly approach” the relevant foreign ministry to emphasize that North Korea was “engaged in a campaign of hostility” that was “brutally demonstrated by its action in the Joint Security Area of the DMZ in which two American personnel were killed and several severely wounded.”145 In that context, the telegram continued, governments that wanted a “balanced approach to the Korean problem will have to take a stand … to demonstrate [to] North Koreans and others that such unreasoned and hostile diplomatic behavior will not be rewarded.”146 While the crisis did not have a decisive impact on the diplomacy surrounding the Korean question at the UN, American and other core-group diplomats were convinced that the momentum from the crisis positively affected their ability to gain enough support in the UN to defer the debate on the Korean question, the main goal of the core group since the General Assembly [End Page 213] passed resolutions 3390A and 3390B the year before. Confirmation of the deferral came on September 21 when the nonaligned–Communist coalition withdrew their resolution. One week later, the French and American ambassadors to the UN agreed that the supporters of the opposition resolution feared they would not obtain enough votes for their resolution, and that other factors, including the “adverse non-aligned reaction to Panmunjom incident and North Korean domestic political situation” were responsible for the withdrawal of the resolution.147

Crises Over Korea: Comparative Perspectives

In the twenty-first century, the Korean Armistice continues to be hailed as the major reason the UNC has preserved peace on the Korean peninsula. What has been preserved, however, can hardly be referred to as peaceful. Indeed, the international relations of the two Koreas are replete with tension and conflict going back to the division of the Korean peninsula and big-power involvement in the emerging civil war in the 1940s and 1950s. The post-1953 history of US and allied diplomacy toward the peninsula, however, has also been responsible for the continued discord. Indeed, the long history of UNC violations of the Armistice—most stemming from the UNC decision in the 1950s to suspend paragraph 13(d) of the truce agreement, which required both sides to cease sending reinforcing matériel to Korea—has accelerated the peninsular arms race, exacerbated mutual antagonisms, strengthened North Korea’s authoritarian-mobilization regime, and prepared the way for a devastating renewal of warfare in Northeast Asia.

United States military and diplomatic policies have been a major cause of this state of affairs, but America’s key partners in the United Nations supported the broad outlines of US government strategies in Korea between the 1950s and 1970s as part of their perceived need to back their major ally’s Cold War policies. There were differences in tactics between the United States and its allies over a number of issues, including disputes over the ways to disable the authority of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, the timing of the entry of atomic weapons to Korea, and the substance of the American negotiating position on the Korean question in the mid-1970s. At times the United States took unilateral action, for example, by rendering the NNSC impotent, or not consulting its allies about the timing of placing nuclear weapons on Korean soil. But the differences in tactics did not cause significant tension within the alliance as the allies consistently deferred to their special relationships with the United States, America’s superior resources and commitment to the peninsula, its dominant relationship with successive Korean governments, and its hegemonic power in Northeast Asia. Until the 1970s, America’s Western alliance partners viewed the Korean peninsula as peripheral to their diplomatic interests, and allied concerns [End Page 214] that South Korean leaders might renew Korea’s civil conflict reinforced their tendency to leave the initiative in the region to American diplomats and soldiers. The United States, however, did not always fully consult its allies about its intentions, a tactic that harkened back to US-UNC relations during the war in the early 1950s. The American tendency to retain policy autonomy led to allied misperceptions about United States strategy in Korea. British Foreign Office officials in the late 1950s, for example, did not think that the United States had brought atomic warheads to the peninsula. The decision of US officials not to reveal the full dimensions of their support for South Korea also provided American policymakers with more flexibility to enact a forward aggressive policy toward North Korea and the Communist world, and then also to appear less culpable than they actually were in exacerbating tensions on the peninsula.

Allied efforts to sustain American policy in successive diplomatic crises in Korea encouraged serious violations of the Armistice Agreement, even while diplomats and politicians continued to argue that the truce preserved the peace. These contradictions stemmed, in part, from policymakers’ uncritical acceptance of the significance of the Armistice, even while the violations they supported threatened global nuclear war. Nowhere was this truer than during the 1976 DMZ crisis. Had the northern regime been in as belligerent a mood as the Ford administration in August 1976, the Third World War might have broken out that month on the Korean peninsula. Continual efforts to maintain the broken Armistice meant that the agreement became more an obstacle to peace than a means of preserving it.148

Over the course of more than two decades, the periodic crises over Korea also created foundations for an evolving realpolitik learning curve about how best to prosecute the ongoing war on the peninsula. The Johnson administration used the nuclear weapons introduced in 1958 as part of a clumsy and confused military effort to compel the release of the Pueblo sailors. The air strategy accompanying the 1968 crisis was replayed in 1976, but in a different guise, partly because of learned experiences from the 1969 EC-121 incident. A crucial difference between the 1976 JSA incident and the two other crises examined in this article was that the JSA crisis occurred over a compressed time span. Its temporal existence was significantly circumscribed compared to the other two emergencies, which were played out over long periods of time, several years in the nuclear weapons case. If perfecting nuclear crisis diplomacy meant compressing the time it took to execute the response, the most salient characteristic of the 1976 crisis was that it purposely marginalized America’s allies, since it provided no time for diplomats to resolve the tension. The mad genius and terror of the US response to the JSA incident was that neither the United States nor its allies could resolve the ensuing crisis. An enemy portrayed as crazy, violent, unpredictable, and unstable would solely determine the outcome of the US military operation. The US strategy thus belied the stereotype, but at the highest possible of human costs. The exercise was designed in such a way as to prevent the diffusion of [End Page 215] tensions so as to enhance the psychological impact of fear. The American war plan was extremely provocative and yet designed to be completely dependent on a passive response by the intended targets. In fact, the events surrounding the JSA in the late summer of 1976 represented a new kind of international war crisis—one that evolved in the absence of traditional diplomacy. The secretive character of the American strategy thus once again operated at the expense of peace, and hid its escalatory potential until revealed at the apex of the crisis. The allies, however, had permitted the United States to develop and execute such a strategy, through their long-term acquiescence to America’s power in the region. In August 1976, the United States employed a war strategy that symbolized the end of peace on the Korean peninsula.

Steven Lee

Steven Lee is associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia. His publications include Outposts of Empire: Korea, Vietnam, and the Origins of the Cold War in Asia, 1949–1954 (McGill–Queen’s, 1995), The Korean War (Longman, 2001), and with co-editor Yunshik Chang, Transformations in Twentieth Century Korea (Routledge, 2006). He is currently working on a global history of the twentieth century for Blackwell and a history of warfare in modern East Asia for Cambridge.


. I would like to thank Charles Armstrong, Heonik Kwon, Michael Kim, Janice Kim, Marilyn Young, and Park Tae Gyun for their warm and friendly support in the writing of this article. Two readers provided incisive and thoughtful comments on the draft. I would also like to thank Tracy Stober for her copyediting work. I presented an early version of the article at the Korean War Workshop at Robinson College, University of Cambridge, in February 2012. This work was supported by the Academy of Korean Studies (MEST) (AKS- 2010-DZZ-3104).

1. United States Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Dispatch, 205.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. For the terms of the Armistice see Walter Hermes, Truce Tent and Fighting Front, 516–38.

7. The NNSC had been established by the Armistice to monitor possible violations of the agreement. Paragraph 13(d) of the Armistice states: “combat aircraft, armoured vehicles, weapons, and ammunition which are destroyed, damaged, worn out, or used up during the period of the Armistice may be replaced on the basis of piece-for-piece of the same effectiveness and the same type.” The Military Armistice Commission was made up of five senior officers from each side. In the period covered in this article, either side could call for a meeting of this Commission at any time.

8. Two useful studies of American nuclear policy during the Korean conflict are Roger Dingman, “Atomic Diplomacy during the Korean War,” 50–91, and Rosemary Foot, “Nuclear Coercion and the Ending of the Korean Conflict,” 92–112. For a recent assessment of the politics of the Communist side during the Armistice negotiations see Thomas Christensen, Worse than a Monolith. For an overview of the history of the Armistice, consult Park Tae Gyun, “The Korean Armistice System since 1953,” 115–36. [End Page 216]

9. In addition to the articles cited above, see Steven Lee, “A Special Relationship,” 213–28.

10. Peter Hayes, Pacific Powderkeg.

11. United States Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1952–1954, volume XV part 2, Korea, 1824.

12. Ibid., 1806.

13. Ibid., 1806–7.

14. Ibid., 90.

15. National Archives of the UK (TNA), FO371/115326 Republic of Korea, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Memo, March 7, 1955.

16. Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War, 167–70.

17. TNA, FO371/115323 CRO Telegram Y. No. 93, February 14, 1955.

18. FRUS, 1955–1957, volume XXIII, part 2, Korea, 121.

19. Ibid., 258.

20. Ibid., 110.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 110.

23. On May 4, 1956, a Belgian official told UNC representatives that his country “opposed any unilateral action on the NNSC problem that appeared to depart from the Armistice Agreement,” and on May 10 the New Zealand representative argued that his government worried that the UNC would be accused of “taking precipitate action” which contravened the Armistice. FRUS, 1955–1957, volume XXIII, part 2, Korea, 264.

24. Ibid., 245.

25. Ibid., 44.

26. Ibid., 44.

27. Ibid., 252, footnote 2.

28. Ibid., 274, footnote 4.

29. Ibid., 278–80.

30. Ibid., 130.

31. Ibid., 307, footnote 7. At the July 1956 meeting Radford claimed the issue was one of economics, something which appealed to the president, though a later NSC meeting in March 1957 resulted in a decision to reduce the costs of supporting the ROK military of 720,000 soldiers—the largest in Asia, and one of the largest in the world—by moving only four ROK divisions, about 60,000 army troops, to reserve status. FRUS, 1955–1957, volume XXIII, part 2, Korea, 392–402. In June 1957, Radford argued that the “Number One reason for wanting to introduce the Honest John rockets and the 280 mm guns … was to provide for the security of [the 60,000] U.S. forces in South Korea,” especially the front line troops. FRUS, 1955–1957, volume XXIII, part 2, Korea, 447. American policymakers thus also viewed the stationing of nuclear weapons in South Korea as a deterrent to the renewal of civil war between the two Koreas. In August 1957 the NSC approved NSC 5702/2, which permitted the United States to support a South Korean invasion of the North in the event a mass uprising occurred in North Korea. See Bruce Cumings, “On the Strategy and Morality of American Nuclear Policy in Korea, 1950 to the Present,” 63–65.

32. FRUS, 1955–1957, volume XXIII, part 2, Korea, 304.

33. Ibid., 330.

34. Ibid., 367. [End Page 217]

35. See David Baker, The Rocket, chapter 5; Andrew J. LePage, “Old Reliable”; and M65 Atomic Cannon, Global Security.org. Accessed April 12, 2013. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ground/m65.htm.

36. FRUS, 1955–1957, volume XXIII, part 2, Korea, 396 and 507.

37. Ibid., 44.

38. See President Eisenhower’s comments, for example, in January 1957, FRUS, 1955–1957, volume XXIII, part 2, Korea 396.

39. Ibid., 395.

40. TNA, FO371/127623, Peter Dalton, “Re-equipment of U.S. Forces in Korea,” May 15, 1957.

41. TNA, FO371/127623, Washington to Foreign Office, April 25, 1957.

42. TNA, FO371/115324, BBC Monitoring Report, February 24, 1955.

43. Igor Seidov, “Krasnye diavoly,” 685. I thank Avram Agov for providing me with this information.

44. On February 26, 1956, North Korea and the Soviet Union signed an agreement for the peaceful use of nuclear energy which resulted in dozens of North Korean trainees going to the Soviet Union. The Koreans built the Yongbyon nuclear plant in 1962. See James Clay Moltz and Andre Mansourov, The North Korean Nuclear Program, 48.

45. TNA, FO371/11524, Arthur de la Mare to Peter Dalton, May 17, 1957.

46. Ibid.

47. TNA, FO371/115324, “China Protests at United States Action in South Korea,” New China News Agency, June 27, 1958.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. TNA, FO371/12762, de la Mare to Peter Dalton, June 27, 1957.

51. FRUS, 1958–1960, volume XVIII, Japan; Korea, 449–55. The ROK reduction was expected to save $127 million over four years; Secretary Dulles and Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey thought the amount not to be “of very great significance.” FRUS, 1955–1957, volume XXIII, part 2, Korea, 447.

52. TNA, FO371/133688, Dalton to de la Mare, February 26, 1958.

53. Ibid.

54. TNA, FO371/133688, de la Mare to Dalton, March 11, 1958.

55. TNA, FO371/133688, de la Mare to Dalton, March 11, 1958. The quote is from a hand-written note by P. Brown on file FK1194/2.

56. FRUS, 1955–1957, volume XXIII, part 2, Korea, 350.

57. TNA FO371/158548, “The US Imperialists Are Driving South Korea into the Trap of Military Fascism,” May 19, 1961.

58. Ibid.

59. TNA, FCO21/344, Moscow to External Affairs, Ottawa, January 27, 1968.

60. TNA, FCO21/344, “A Statement by the North Korean Regime on January 27, 1968.”

61. Mitchell B. Lerner, The Pueblo Incident, 130.

62. FRUS 1964–1968, volume XXIX, part 1, Korea, 331.

63. Ibid., 312.

64. Ibid., 512. [End Page 218]

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid.

67. For a description of the full range of military actions taken by the Johnson administration, see Mitchell B. Lerner, The Pueblo Incident, 129–30.

68. TNA, FCO21/344, New York to Foreign Office, January 29, 1968.

69. FRUS, 1964–1968, volume XXIX, part 1, Korea, 377.

70. Ibid., 387. Vance’s recommendations to the president included more protection for US weapons sites. Some of the record has been censored, most likely because these sites contained atomic weapons.

71. Peter Hayes, Pacific Powderkeg, 48–49. American officials moved the atomic weapons back from the DMZ in 1975. See Peter Hayes, 58.

72. Mitchell B. Lerner, The Pueblo Incident, 167.

73. TNA, FCO21/344, Washington to Foreign Office, January 24, 1968.

74. TNA, FCO21/344, Moscow to External Affairs, Ottawa, January 27, 1968.

75. TNA, FCO21/344, Moscow to External Affairs, Ottawa, January 27, 1968. See also Moscow of External Affairs, January 29, 1968.

76. TNA, FCO21/344, Seoul to Foreign Office, February 7, 1968.

77. TNA, FCO21/344, Washington to Foreign Office, February 1, 1968.

78. TNA, FCO21/345, Seoul to Foreign Office, February 1, 1968.

79. TNA, FCO21/347, Prime Minister’s Visit to Washington and Ottawa, February 2, 1968.

80. Ibid.

81. TNA, FCO21/347, Prime Minister’s Visit to Washington and Ottawa, February 2, 1968; TNA, FCO21/344, Washington to Foreign Office, February 1, 1968.

82. TNA, FCO21/344, Seoul to Foreign Office, February 6, 1968.

83. Ibid.

84. TNA, FCO21/344, New York to Foreign Office, January 31, 1968.

85. TNA, FCO21/344, Washington to Foreign Office, January 31, 1968.

86. United States Department of State, Bulletin, January 6, 1969: 1–3.

87. FRUS 1964–1968, volume XXIX, Korea, part 1, 406.

88. Ibid., 412, footnote 3.

89. Ibid., 408.

90. Ibid., 449.

91. Ibid., 406.

92. FRUS 1964–1968, volume XXIX, part 1, Korea, 435; and US Congress, Executive Sessions of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 511.

93. FRUS 1964–1968, volume XXIX, part 1, Korea, 434, 412.

94. US Congress, Executive Sessions of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 511. South Korea’s population in 1967 was about 29 million and it spent about 4.8 percent of its GDP on military affairs.

95. Hakjoon Kim, Unification Policies of South and North Korea, 1945–1991, 558.

96. Ibid.

97. Ibid., 587.

98. For a discussion of North-South relations in this era, see Hakjoon Kim, Unification Policies of South and North Korea, 1945–1991, chapters 9–10.

99. Jürgen Kleiner, Korea, 400. [End Page 219]

100. TNA, FCO21/1318, “Hearings by the House of Representatives on US Policy in South Korea,” Michael Pike to Christopher Dean, August 1, 1974.

101. Ibid.

102. Ibid.

103. United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), RG59, Washington to Seoul, 027508, February 4, 1976. Accessed April 13, 2013. http://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=14092&dt=2082&dl=1345.

104. See Barry Gills, Korea versus Korea, chapter 6; and Renu Srivastava, India and the Nonaligned Summits, chapter 3.

105. United Nations, General Assembly, Resolutions Adopted by the General Assembly on its Thirtieth Session, 16–17.

106. Ibid.

107. Ibid. Some governments, including Canada, expressed frustration at the lack of consultation over the final wording of the resolution.

108. US Department of State, Office of the Historian. FRUS, 1969–1976, Volume E–12, Documents on East and Southeast Asia, 1973–1976, Document 253, National Security Decision Memorandum 251, Washington, March 29, 1974. Accessed April 12, 2013. http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-1976vel12/d253.

109. Ibid.

110. Ibid.

111. Ibid.

112. Barry Gills, Korea versus Korea, 131.

113. TNA, FCO21/1455, Frank Wheeler to D.K. Haskell.

114. TNA, FCO21/1323, Confidential minute by W. Bentley, December 24, 1974.

115. US Department of State, Office of the Historian, FRUS, 1969–1976, Volume E-12, Documents on East and Southeast Asia, 1973–1976, Document 258. Memorandum of Conversation, Seoul, November 22, 1974, 3 p.m. Accessed April 12, 2013. http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76ve12/d258.

116. Charles Armstrong, “Juche and North Korea’s Global Aspirations,” 8.

117. TNA, FCO21/1323, FCO to Washington, April 23, 1975.

118. TNA, FCO21/1455, Sheila Harden to Keith Haskell, May 16, 1975.

119. TNA, FCO21/1456, FCO to certain missions, July 29, 1975.

120. Ibid.

121. Ibid.

122. Ibid.

123. Ibid.

124. National Security Advisor, Kissinger Reports on USSR, China, and Middle East Discussions, 1974–1976, Box 2, September 28, 1975–Kissinger’s Meeting with PRC Officials in New York. Gerald Ford Library.

125. NARA, RG 59, Washington to US embassies, 181897, July 22, 1976. Accessed April 13, 2013. http://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=157753&dt=2082&dl=1345. On June 23 allied criticisms were buoyed by a speech by Democratic Party presidential nominee, Jimmy Carter, who announced his support for a withdrawal of US ground troops in Korea.

126. NARA, RG59, Belgrade to Washington, 4861, July 24, 1976. Accessed April 13, 2013. http://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=176757&dt=2082&dl=1345. [End Page 220]

127. The core group was the term used to describe the coalition of like-minded US and ROK allies that coordinated Korea UN policy out of New York, but whose influence extended around the world through their countries’ embassies and consulates. The core states’ representatives came from the UN missions of the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, Belgium, Costa Rica, and the ROK Observer Mission to the UN.

128. NARA, RG59, New York to Washington, 3255, August 16, 1976. Accessed April 13, 2013. http://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=202795&dt=2082&dl=1345.

129. NARA, RG59 New York to Washington, 8644, August 13, 1976. Accessed April 13, 2013. http://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=207325&dt=2082&dl=1345.

130. The US Mission in the UN, for example, reported to Washington on August 17 that it was uncertain if the General Committee, which made recommendations to the General Assembly about whether and when an item should be debated, would defer debate on the draft pro-peace treaty resolution in the General Assembly. See NARA, RG59, New York to Washington, 3263, August 17, 1976. Accessed April 13, 2013. http://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=213347&dt=2082&dl=1345.

131. NARA, RG59, Washington to all diplomatic posts, enclosing DPRK government statement of 5 August, August 26, 1976. Accessed April 13, 2013. http://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=199290&dt=2082&dl=1345.

132. Ibid.

133. Ibid.

134. US Department of State, Office of the Historian, FRUS, 1969–1976, Volume E–12, Documents on East and Southeast Asia, 1973–1976, Document 282, Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting, Washington, August 18, 1976, 3:47–4:43p.m. Accessed April 12, 2013. http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76ve12/d282.

135. Ibid. In Brent Scowcroft’s view, Gerald Ford would have won the 1976 election had there been a war over Korea. See Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas, 83.

136. TNA, Cabinet Conclusions, 20th Conclusions, May 1, 1969, as reported to the Cabinet by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Michael Stewart. All thirty-one of the crew died in the attack. The US government claimed the plane remained over international airspace at all times. It is possible that the DPRK attacked in retaliation for a US covert operation against the north, possibly in conjunction with US policy in the immediate aftermath of the Pueblo incident, but so far as I know no evidence for this possibility exists. For further discussion on the motivation of the North Korean side, see Christian F. Ostermann and James F. Person, Crisis and Confrontation on the Korean Peninsula, “Panel IV: Controntation Continues: Nixon’s First Year and the Korean Peninsula,” especially the possibility that the first Focus Lens (Retina) military maneuvers may have instigated the North Korean attack.

137. During discussions over operational options in the 1976 crisis, Kissinger remarked: “Ideally we should do something quickly and then generate our forces afterwards. I remember with the EC-121 incident that by the time we had identified our targets and had meetings and moved the carriers—it was too late.” FRUS 1969–1976, East Asia and South East Asia, Document 285.

138. Don Oberdorder, The Two Koreas, 81. [End Page 221]

139. NARA, RG59, Secstate Washington to USDEL Secretary, 206906, August 19, 1976. Accessed April 13, 2013. http://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=207287&dt=2082&dl=1345.

140. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, After Détente, 722.

141. TNA, FCO21/1589, “Republic of Korea: Annual Review for 1976,” January 3, 1977. The ambassador went on to say that the US strategy for dealing with the murders was unprovocative, something which belies the planning in Washington and the style of Kissinger’s diplomacy in particular.

142. US Department of State, Office of the Historian, FRUS, 1969–1976, East Asia and South East Asia, Document 285. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting, Washington, August 19, 1976, 8:12–9:15 a.m. Accessed April 12, 2013. http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76ve12/d285.

143. Peter Hayes, Pacific Powderkeg, 61.

144. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, After Détente, 717.

145. NARA, RG59, Washington to various diplomatic posts, 206086, August 19, 1976. Accessed April 13, 2013. http://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=212459&dt=2082&dl=1345.

146. Ibid.

147. NARA, RG59, USUN New York to Washington, 3997, September 28, 1976. Accessed April 13, 2013. http://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=246221&dt=2082&dl=1345.

148. See also Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas, 83.


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