Sticking to Our Long Game With North Korea

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Watching the renewed tension between North and South Korea, I am reminded of early 1976, when I took command of the Korean-American field army formation defending the Western Sector of Korea's demilitarized zone. Saigon had fallen the year before and United States intelligence collection had shifted to Korea.

Our intelligence found that while the U.S. had been fighting the Vietnam war, North Korea had grown its tank strength from 400 to 1920. It had increased its river crossing capabilities and its airborne troop transports at like pace. The North had created five tank divisions to South Korea's one, and had a corresponding superiority in other type formations. U.S. intelligence also determined that there would be less warning than previously thought if North Korea decided to attack.

With the North's infantry well forward and its artillery shielded in caves close to the DMZ, and with its ability to secretly concentrate overwhelming force, we calculated that our enemy was capable of launching a surprise attack that could probably seize the city of Seoul and beyond.

We knew that, in time, the U.S. and South Korea would build defenses to reduce the likelihood of a successful North Korean invasion. But in the meantime we had to rely on the U.S. commitment to bring overwhelming airpower, both land- and sea-based to the South's defense to deter a North Korean attack.

In August 1976 I saw that deterrence borne out. North Korean troops abruptly attacked a joint U.S.-South Korean work party that was trimming a poplar tree in the Panmunjom Joint Security Area, the only part of the DMZ where both South and North Korean forces are stationed. Using axes dropped by the workers, the North Koreans murdered the two U.S. officers leading the work party. Three days later General Richard G. Stilwell, then leading the United Nations Command, marshaled his full command in readiness, supported by massive air reinforcements in Korea and offshore, and sent in an engineer platoon backed up by U.S. infantry to cut down the poplar tree. North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung came as close as he ever did to apologizing.

In the fall of 1976, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter campaigned with a pledge to remove, over time, all U.S. ground forces from Korea, without calling for compensatory actions by the North. In early 1977, he directed the Joint Chief of Staff to plan such withdrawals. But U.S. commanders in South Korea warned that such evidence of U.S. irresolution increased the likelihood of war.

Working with General John W. Vessey, who had succeeded General Stilwell, the Joint Chiefs of Staff crafted a plan for a modest withdrawal of U.S. Army units. But the process stalled in Congress and, within a week of taking office, President Ronald Reagan scrapped the idea.

In the following decades of crisis, confrontation, and threats from the North, the U.S. has left little doubt of its readiness to live up to its responsibilities for the mutual defense of the Republic of Korea. The current crisis in the Yellow Sea, which began when the North shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong late last month, is only the most recent example

Observers in the U.S. have suggested a variety of options to ameliorate the current crisis. But the best choice is to continue on the same course that has prevented war through decades of such crises. The United States should maintain its position of determination and military strength. Threats from North Korea will continue, but strong, U.S.-led deterrence will work as it always has.

We should maintain that calm posture of deterrence even if the North were to possess missiles with nuclear warheads. While they may not, yet, the North Korean nuclear program has accelerated this year.

And the U.S. should make absolutely clear that the it has no intention, repeat none, of launching an attack, not to speak of a nuclear attack, on North Korea. Our sole reason for maintaining a Korean-American force on the peninsula is deterrence.

We should announce that, conforming to standard U.S. Navy practice, Aegis-equipped warships are in nearby waters ready to intercept and shoot down any missiles, whatever their warheads, that North Korea may recklessly choose to launch southward. And we should quietly make clear that with our Korean allies we are ready day-to-day to respond with overwhelming air and missile strikes in such an eventuality. If the attack be nuclear, the US response will be nuclear, as President Obama reaffirmed in his Nuclear Posture Review earlier this year.

U.S. military deterrence has worked to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula since I arrived there in 1976. It will continue to work now.

Image: In what was called Operation Paul Bunyan, U.S. and South Korean troops cut away most of a poplar tree in the DMZ. Two U.S. officers had been attempting to trim the tree when they were attacked and killed by North Korean troops. From August 1976, via Wikimedia Commons.

Presented by

U.S. Army Lieutenant General John H. Cushman, retired, commanded the United States-South Korean First Corps Group from 1976 to 1978.

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