The Second Korean War
By Mitchell Lerner
Beginning in late 1966, a series of small conflicts erupted on the Korean Peninsula for the first time since the Korean War. With the deployment of guerillas into South Korea for the first time since the Korean War, the contentious period of violence became to be known as the “Second Korean War.”
"Never," wrote the East German Ambassador to North Korea as 1967 drew to a close, "since the end of the Korean War, have there been so many and such severe incidents at the armistice line as in 1967." (Letter from GDR Ambassador to DPRK, December 8, 1967, to State Secretary and First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ministerium fur Auswärtige Angelegenheiten der DDR [Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the GDR, in Mitchell Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda by Nature,” NKIDP Working Paper #3. )
Direct attacks on US property were not uncommon; one attack, in May 1967, resulted in the destruction of two US infantry barracks, killing two men and leaving 19 wounded. ("Security Conditions in South Korea," CIA report, June 23, 1967, LBJL, National Security File, Country File, Korea, Vol. IV.) That year also saw two ship-to-shore firefights along the Southern coast, a North Korean attack on a ROK army barracks, and large-scale guerrilla infiltration. American troops assigned to South Korea routinely found their tours of duty extended to meet the growing danger, and the U.S Joint Chiefs of Staff quietly re-classified the northern part of South Korea as a hostile fire zone, making troops stationed there eligible for combat pay, as well as for the Combat Infantryman Badge and Combat Medical Badge. DPRK propaganda stressed American responsibility for the provocations, but even their allies knew who was responsible for the outbreaks; Soviet officials in North Korea, according to one report, "held the view that they were mostly instigated by the DPRK." (Letter to Secretary of State and First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Comrade Hegen, from Embassy of the GDR in the DPRK, December 12, 1966, Archives of the Foreign Office, Berlin, in Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda by Nature.” )
The Blue House Raid
An infuriated ROK population demanded retaliation. The Korean Peoples Anti-Communist League sponsored a rally in Seoul; despite twenty-degree weather, 100,000 people showed up to march three miles and burn a ten-foot straw effigy of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Similar feelings were echoed across the nation. Anti-DPRK sentiment, wrote the Czech embassy to Pyongyang, was so strong that "South Korean authorities did not even have to apply direct pressure to ensure participation in these demonstrations." ("Pueblo and American-South Korean relations," February 9, 1968, Political Report #11, Czech Embassy in the DPRK, Report # 031/68, SM-021712/68, in Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda by Nature.”) When ROK President Park Chung Hee, in response, ordered the creation of a local defense force to supplement the regular army, 2 million South Koreans volunteered within six months. Under fierce American pressure, Park managed to restrain his military from taking major retaliatory actions against the North, but it was not easy. "Few people" recalled one American general, "realize how close we came to war on January 21." ( New York Times, August 16, 1968.)
USS Pueblo Incident
This time it was the American public that demanded retaliation, especially as the DPRK regularly used the Pueblo men as propaganda pawns throughout the year. Senator Russell Long (D-LA) suggested the United States begin sinking North Korean gunboats and holding their merchant ships hostage; "If the Soviets want to deal itself in on it," Long trumpeted, "they can get in on it, too." (Philadelphia Enquirer, January 29, 1968.)Telegrams flooded the White House. One from Los Angeles asked Johnson to "drop a juicy bomb on their capital" and another from Philadelphia demanded, "drop the hydrogen bomb and let's end it." (Los Angeles telegram from Irving Pell, Philadelphia telegram from Herbert Trulick, in LBJL, White House Central Files, subject file, defense, ND 19/CO 151, box 210. )
South Korea continued its demand for a response as well. In February, over 1,000 ROK high school students protested in front of US Information Service Centers at Taegu and Kwangju, demanding action against the North and an end to "boot-licking conferences." ("Chronology of Diplomatic Activity in Pueblo Crisis," U.S. State Dept. report, April 29, 1968, Declassified Document Record System, document #CK3100150473, p. 298. )One ROK newspaper blasted the "humiliating appeasement posture of the United States," and another concluded, "Instead of dealing a severe blow of retaliation against a series of barbarous acts of bellicosity committed by the North Korean communist aggressors, the world's biggest power seems to have started dancing to the communist propaganda tune." ("Humiliating appeasement" in telegram 4015 from American Embassy Seoul to State Department, February 6, 1968, LBJL, NSC Histories, Pueblo Crisis, 1968, box 34-5, volume 16, telegrams from Seoul, tabs 1-5; "propaganda tune" in New York Times, February 8, 1968, p. 15.)
Mobilizing for War
Many on the Communist side expected war. "If the DPRK does not accede to U.S. demands to return the ship and crew," the Polish Ambassador to North Korea lamented, "we might probably witness an armed conflict here." ("Note on a Conversation with the Polish Ambassador, Comrade Naperei, on 26 January 1968, in the Polish Embassy," GDR Embassy to DPRK, 27 January 1968, in Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda by Nature.”) Chinese officials reported that the North Korean people were rallying for war, confident that the USSR and China would back them with nuclear weapons if needed. ("Excerpt from a Personal Letter of the Acting Ambassador of the GDR in Pyongyang, Comrade Jarck," attachment to a letter from GDR Foreign Minister Hegen to GDR officials, February 23, 1968, in Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda by Nature.”) Moscow desperately tried to keep Kim under control. The Soviet government, noted a Hungarian official, believes that, "the further prolongation of the crisis would be seriously dangerous…[and] strives to induce the DPRK to find a right time for handing over of the Pueblo and its crew…so as to put an end to the crisis." ("Report, Embassy of Hungary in the Soviet Union to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, 30 January 1968," MOL, XIX-J-1-j Korea, 1968, in Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda by Nature.”) In mid-February, the Soviet Ambassador to the DPRK quietly informed Kim that "we need a peaceful resolution and a reasonable solution." ("Note on a Conversation with the USSR Ambassador, Comrade Suradikov, on 16 February 1968 between 16:15 and 17:30 hours," GDR Embassy to DPRK, Pyongyang, 20 February 1968, in Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda by Nature.”) Soviet frustration with their ally sometimes even exploded into the public arena, notably at the April 1968 Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party Plenum, Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev blasted North Korea in a lengthy speech. North Korean officials, he reported, "spoke to the intentions to bind the Soviet Union somehow, using the existence of the treaty between the USSR and the DPRK to involve us in supporting such plans of the Korean friends, about which we knew nothing." ("Excerpt from Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev's speech at the April (1968) CC CPSU Plenum," On the current problems of the international situation and on the struggle of the CPSU for the unity of the international communist movement, 9 April 1968, Russian Government Archives of Contemporary History, in Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda by Nature.”)
Still, the DPRK refused to yield, demanding the United States apologize and take other actions to ensure that the "national dignity of the DPRK was not insulted." ("Information about the Situation in Korea," p. 15.) The North massed its defense forces along its harbors and the DMZ, and kept a number of jets constantly in the skies. Nor were their actions strictly defensive. Kim, lamented a Polish member of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission shortly after the Blue House and Pueblo attacks, was still launching "continuous attempts" to infiltrate South Korea with commandos. ("Note on a conversation with the Polish Ambassador, Comrade Naperei, on 26 January 1968, in the Polish Embassy," p.1, in Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda by Nature,” NKIDP Working Paper #3.) In April 1968, an ambush of a United Nations Command (UNC) truck along the DMZ left four UNC soldiers dead. A few months later, the Polish Ambassador to the DPRK reported that armed clashes over the preceding six weeks had resulted in an estimated 30 deaths along the southern side of the DMZ. ("Note on the Farewell Visit of the Polish Ambassador to the DPRK, Comrade Naperei, with Comrade Jarck on 26 July 1968, between 11:00 and 12:30 hours," GDR Embassy to DPRK, July 29, 1968, in Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda by Nature.”) In October, the North landed approximately 120 soldiers at different locations along the east coast of South Korea, between the towns of Ulchin and Samchok, sparking a series of fights that left 63 Southerners and many more Northerners dead. The violence had reached levels not seen since the end of Korean War in 1953, and there seemed no end in sight. "The recurrence of similar events can be expected," predicted the East German Ambassador to the DPRK. "Thus the tensions, which are also created by other factors, will certainly not diminish but rather will increase." ("Excerpt from a Personal Letter of the Acting Ambassador of the GDR in Pyongyang, Comrade Jarck," p. 1, in Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda by Nature.”)
De-escalating the Crisis
This dire prediction, however, soon proved erroneous. North Korea began to reverse course in 1969, and tensions returned to the level of the years that had preceded the Second Korean War. Military incidents still occurred occasionally, most notably the DPRK shoot-down of an American EC-121 reconnaissance plane that had been conducting aerial intelligence collection operations about 70 miles southeast of Chongjin, killing all 31 Americans on board. Still, Northern bellicosity was clearly on the wane. The number of firefights along the DMZ fell from 236 in 1968 to 39 in 1969. ( Bolger, Scenes from an Unfinished War.)The Pueblo men came home, and within a few years the Nixon administration began publicly discussing the possibility of removing most American troops from South Korea. Still, the period of the Second Korean War stands as one of the most dangerous times on the Korean peninsula since 1953.
Explaining the DPRK's Aggression
There remains much scholarly debate over the causes of the North Korean aggression. Most interpretations for Pyongyang's belligerency during the Second Korean War can be lumped into one of six general explanatory categories. The first, which has been largely discredited, suggests that the North Korean attacks were actually defensive, driven by increased South Korean and American provocation. (See, for example, Frank Baldwin, ed., Without Parallel: The American-Korean Relationship since 1945 (Pantheon, 1974), p. 33, and Park, Tae-Gyun, "Beyond the Myth: Reassessing the Security Crisis on the Korean Peninsula during the mid-1960s," Pacific Affairs, Volume 82, spring 2009, p. 93-110.) As more evidence from the archives of the DPRK's allies has emerged, however, it has become clear that North Korea was the aggressor and this interpretation in largely unsupportable. While there is no doubt that South Korean officials did try to use the growing crisis to manipulate their American benefactors, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence suggests that the North provoked the vast majority of the military confrontations. "The incidents in the demilitarized zone and to the south of it," concluded a lengthy report from the Czechoslovakian government in 1968, "are intentionally and purposefully provoked mostly by the DPRK." ( "Information about the Situation in Korea," February 5, 1968, State Central Archive, Prague, Central Committee of CPCZ Archive, File #3750, Fund 02/1, Vol 68, Ar. J. 61, p. 13, in Mitchell Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda by Nature,” NKIDP Working Paper #3.)
The Vietnam War
Other interpretations, however, exist. One argument puts the Vietnam War at the center of the equation. Noting the similarities of timing between the American escalation in Vietnam and the DPRK actions, some have speculated that the two were connected, suggesting that Kim was trying to help his Vietnamese allies by forcing the American military to divide its resources between the two fronts; that he had been inspired by the success of the guerilla tactics of the North Vietnamese, and believed that similar tactics might work in Korea; or that he believed that America's commitment in Southeast Asia would prevent the U.S. from responding forcefully to his provocations against the South. (See, for example Robert Scalapino and Chong-Sik Lee, Communism in Korea (University of California Press, 1972), p. 594-6; Vandon Jenerette, "The Forgotten DMZ," Military Review, Volume 68, number 5, May 1988, p. 32-43; Donald Zagoria and Young Kun Kim, "North Korea and the Major Powers," in Asian Survey, Volume 15, December 1975, p. 1018; Narushige Michishita, "Calculated Adventurism," The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Volume 16. Number 2, Fall, 2004, p. 187; and Daniel Bolger, Scenes from an Unfinished War, chapter 1, on-line at: http://carl.army.mil/resources/csi/Bolger/bolger.asp (last accessed December 14, 2009).)
The declining DPRK-China relationship is also part of this view, as some suggest that Kim felt abandoned by the Chinese, because of their focus on the Cultural Revolution, and that the Revolution had opened the door to Kim to emerge as the dominant Asian communist leader, but only if he could first demonstrate to other Communist states his commitment to fighting Western imperialism. (Bernd Schaefer, "North Korean 'Adventurism' and China's Long Shadow, 1966-1972”; Bradley Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (Thomas Dunne, 2004), p. 121-24. ) Regardless of the specific interpretation, however, this school is generally united by the belief that changing external circumstances, largely rooted in Beijing, Moscow, and Washington, were central in driving the DPRK policies.
Fearful of falling behind in this critical competition, Kim thought it necessary to act to balance the scales, and hoped to weaken the Park government through these guerilla attacks before his opportunity was lost. (See, for example, Charles Armstrong, Necessary Enemies," US-Korea Institute Working Paper Series, WP 08-03, September 2008, p. 6; Bolger, Scenes from an Unfinished War; Balazs Szalontai, Maneuvering Between the Battling Whales: North Korea’s Involvement in the Second Indochina War, 1964-1975, unpublished paper in author's possession; Yong Soon Yim, "The Dynamics of North Korean Military Doctrine," in Kwak, The Two Korea in World Politics, pp. 124-26)
Shifting Domestic Political Structure in the DPRK
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Lerner, Mitchell. "Mostly Propaganda in Nature:" Kim Il Sung, the Juche Ideology, and the Second Korean War.” NKIDP Working Paper #3, 2010.
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