War Stories

Déjà Vu in North Korea

When North Korea shot down an American plane in 1969, the U.S. had no good options. Today, it would be even worse.

A U.S. Navy Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star. An EC-121 was shot down by North Korean MiG-21s on April 15, 1969, killing all 31 crew members.

U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

After President Trump threatened last week to “totally destroy” North Korea, the country’s foreign minister responded by claiming that the president has “declared war” and that North Korea has the right to shoot down American bombers that venture near the country’s airspace. It sounds—and it is—alarming, but it’s worth noting we’ve been here before.

On April 15, 1969, North Korean MiG fighter planes shot down an American EC-121 spy plane flying off the coast of the Korean Peninsula (but still over international waters), killing all 31 crew members. President Richard Nixon, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff spent the next 2½ months pondering what to do.

In 2010, the National Security Archive, a private research outfit at George Washington University, published a trove of once top secret documents—which the group had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act—summarizing the discussions. They are worth a close read. It’s likely that Trump’s advisers have been holding similar discussions; it’s also likely that their conclusions aren’t very different from those reached nearly 50 years ago.

On the first day of the 1969 crisis, the chiefs sent Kissinger a memo outlining the pros and cons of mounting an airstrike on a small number of North Korean air bases. On the one hand, a “positive and deliberate response” would show America’s “resolve” to punish an act of aggression, they wrote. On the other hand, the attack would be “a deliberate act of war,” to which “North Korea may respond by launching attacks upon [U.S. and South Korean] forces.”

The chiefs came up with more nuanced or, in some cases, more extravagant options in the ensuing weeks, but the obstacle remained the same. Any attack that didn’t obliterate North Korea’s military power would almost certainly spark a retaliatory attack against South Korea, Japan, and American forces in the region. Yet it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to obliterate North Korea’s military assets. If such an attack were attempted, it would be so large—probably involving nuclear weapons—that China or Russia might be drawn into the war; or even if they weren’t, the moral and political blowback against the United States would be enormous.

After a few days of deliberation, the central dilemma became clear to Kissinger, the chiefs, and all the other advisers mulling the problem. If the U.S. responded to the shoot-down with a limited attack, it would neither deter the North Koreans from further aggression nor prevent them from retaliating. Yet if the U.S. responded with a massive attack, it probably still wouldn’t knock out the entire North Korean military, and Pyongyang would almost certainly respond with its own devastating counterpunch. (Then, as now, North Korea had thousands of artillery shells well within range of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, just 35 miles from the border.)

On May 21, the Joint Chiefs came up with a medium-size approach—sending three B-52 bombers, armed with conventional weapons, to destroy a North Korean airfield or two. Gen. Earle Wheeler, the JCS chairman, wrote in a memo to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird that, if this attack were mounted “quickly” and “in response to another hostile act,” we would have “a reasonable chance of not provoking the North Koreans into retaliatory action of such magnitude as to involve a major conflict.” Laird sent the note to Kissinger, adding that this plan struck him as “more sensible than any yet postulated.”

A “reasonable chance” of not triggering “a major conflict”: that was the best anyone could come up with.

Upon scrutiny, this wasn’t good enough. On July 2, at an interagency meeting in the White House Situation Room, Kissinger mused that “the trick in any action taken would be to preclude a counterblow” by North Korea. In that sense, he said, if a B-52 strike were deemed necessary, “the price you pay really isn’t much greater for a strike with 25 aircraft than with three.” The war, and the damage done to both sides, would escalate either way. (These quotes come from the note taker’s summary of the meeting.)

Still, war might break out, so the interagency group continued to explore options, both for how to respond to the initial attack and what to do if the war intensified. Eventually they came up with 25 options, including three nuclear options, which were bundled together under the codename “Freedom Drop.” One of them called for hitting 12 military targets, one nuke for each target, ranging from atomic artillery shells (exploding with the power of about 200 tons of TNT) to bombs of 10 kilotons (10,000 tons). Another option would drop bombs of 70 kilotons each on a wider range of military targets if North Korea attacked South Korea. A third option would drop bombs of 10 to 70 kilotons on still more targets with the goal of “greatly” diminishing North Korea’s offensive capability. (The atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima at the end of World War II had the explosive power of 15 kilotons.)

In the end, Nixon did none of these things. Kissinger had said at the July 2 meeting that Nixon “would probably either do nothing or select an option toward the extreme of the range of possibilities.” And so he did nothing, at least nothing that involved shooting weapons. (The two men went the other way in exploring options for the ongoing war in Vietnam.)

Instead, he sent another aircraft carrier battle group to the waters near North Korea. He resumed sorties of spy planes, this time escorting them with fighter jets. He issued stern warnings not to mess with the United States again. He reassured allies in the region of America’s commitment to their defense. And the crisis died down.

And by the way, these were the only options available at a time when North Korea did not have a nuclear weapons program, had not encased many of its artillery rockets on the sides of mountains, and had not dispersed much of its air force. In other words, North Korea was far more vulnerable to a disabling surprise attack in 1969 than it is now—and yet Nixon, Kissinger, and the generals found no military response that wouldn’t very likely trigger catastrophe.

Several times in the subsequent decades, other administrations explored the question of how to deal with North Korea in a crisis. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of Defense William Perry went through the same process in 1994 when a U.S. helicopter was shot down after straying across the North Korean border. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and their generals went through the same process in 2002 when Pyongyang restarted its nuclear program (which an agreement, negotiated by Clinton shortly after the helicopter incident, had halted for eight years) again with the same, inescapable conclusions. At that point, Bush, who had earlier repeated Cheney’s line that “we don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it,” resumed negotiations, though by then, it was too late to achieve meaningful results.

It is likely that President Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and the present-day generals are going through a very similar exercise. Mattis has said the United States has “military options” for dealing with North Korea; he has not said we have good military options. A recent war game of how a conflict might play out, reported in the Los Angeles Times, affirms the judgment going back almost 50 years now—that even the smallest skirmish could quickly spin out of control. The Pentagon has reportedly estimated that if war broke out, the number of dead in South Korea could reach 20,000 per day, even without the use of nuclear weapons. Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, have lately been emphasizing the need to seek diplomatic solutions as well as keeping the familiar options “on the table.”

Trump seems oblivious to these concerns. He speaks blithely of “totally” destroying North Korea and tweets that “Little Rocket Man” and his foreign minister “won’t be around much longer” if they keep making bellicose comments. The Washington Post reports that North Korean officials are frantically calling Asian specialists in the United States, asking about Trump’s intentions and wondering why his statements differ so drastically from those of his top advisers. The North Koreans aren’t alone in their bafflement. Trump’s own officials don’t know what the boss is up to. The L.A. Times reported that, before his U.N. speech, intelligence officials had advised Trump not to insult Kim personally, or else diplomatic avenues might be closed off. The paper also revealed that the final draft seen by Trump’s top advisers did not include the phrases “Rocket Man” or “totally destroy.” (This may be why White House chief of staff John Kelly could be seen with his head buried in his hand around this moment.)

And that’s the danger of the current moment. I’ve written before that we should easily be able to deter North Koreans from launching a nuclear attack, either against our territory or that of our allies. After all, we have thousands of nuclear bombs and warheads, and though Kim is erratic, he seems the opposite of suicidal. However, I’ve also written that the important thing—the key to deterrence—is that we remain calm, resolute, and consistent in displaying the ability and the will to protect our interests. This calm, resolution, and consistency are what’s lacking. Another element that’s lacking is any diplomatic presence on the ground: We currently have no ambassador to South Korea, no assistant secretary of state for Pacific and Asian affairs, no assistant secretary of defense with that portfolio, no special emissary—nothing. In this climate of harsh rhetoric and rough nerves, with two ego-pampered leaders ill-disposed to backing down, a skirmish, a misperception, or an untimely false alarm could trigger a conflict, which could widen into a devastating war.