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Cold War-Era Files Reveal U.S. Fears of S. Korean Attack on North

Asia: Washington sought to avoid being drawn into conflict in 1968. Southern leader Park Chung Hee's erratic behavior raised concerns, papers show.

January 28, 2001|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They studied the possibility of seizing or sinking North Korean ships, mining the regime's harbors, mounting a naval blockade, carrying out airstrikes or conducting raids across the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

Within short order, Johnson and his aides decided to negotiate with North Korea for the return of the Pueblo crew.

Over lunch on Jan. 29, Johnson and top aides decided their objectives were to get back the crew, to make sure that South Korean troops would continue to fight alongside U.S. forces in Vietnam and, most important, to "avoid a second front [war] in Asia."

But one big obstacle stood in the way: Park.

The South Korean president was infuriated by the Blue House raid, American officials reported. He thought that the North Koreans should be punished with military action, both for that raid and for the seizure of the Pueblo.

U.S. Ambassador William J. Porter cabled Washington that "Park is almost irrationally obsessed with need to strike now at North Koreans."

Park wanted to attack and eliminate the North Korean training centers and was incensed because the Americans were giving far greater priority to the Pueblo incident than to the raid.

Johnson sent Vance to Seoul with instructions to tell the South Korean leader that U.S. domestic politics were a factor behind the White House decision to negotiate with the North, the files indicate. "This is an election year in the U.S., and the [Pueblo] issue could become a major one in the campaign in such a way as to affect U.S.-ROK [South Korean] relations and our position in Southeast Asia," Vance's written instructions said.

The Johnson administration coupled its soothing messages with a warning: If Park threatened to pull South Korean troops out of Vietnam, the United States would respond by withdrawing American troops from South Korea.

After the mission, Vance told Johnson that Park was "a danger and rather unsafe."

"President Park will issue all sorts of orders when he begins drinking," Vance said. "His generals will delay any action on them until the next morning. If he says nothing about those orders the following morning, then they just forget what he told them the night before."

In the end, Park went along with the U.S. efforts to negotiate with North Korea for the crew of the Pueblo.

But the American anxieties did not subside. Within two months, the U.S. Embassy warned Washington once again that South Korea was considering "military moves" or even "a preemptive strike against the North to effect reunification," according to the internal documents.

The Pueblo's crew was released in December 1968, after American negotiators gave North Korea an apology, which the United States immediately repudiated once the men were set free.

Park remained in power for another decade, surviving another North Korean assassination attempt in 1974 that killed his wife. He was shot and killed in 1979--not by the North Koreans, but by his own chief of intelligence.

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Times staff writer Mark Magnier in Seoul contributed to this report.

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