156. Telegram From the Embassy in Korea to the Department of State1

4008. 1. Bonesteel and I were called to meet with Prime Minister, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Information and Chief of JCS this morning. Meeting lasted approximately one hour twenty minutes.

2. PriMin opened by saying he wanted to make clear the attitude of ROK Government, that this was the time to think calmly and consider all the facts. At present time feelings of population quite different from periods of normalization of relations with Japan or when troops for Vietnam matter being considered. The government had adopted a cautious attitude to avoid helping the enemy or exciting the people. They had let no one know meeting with US being held. (When we arrived there were at least 100 correspondents in anteroom outside PriMin’s office.)

3. PriMin said closed or secret meetings at Panmunjom have been taking place. He is aware that Ambassador has been reporting to President Park on all these matters. Public understanding, however, was lacking. People believed that United Nations would continue to protect sovereignty and security of ROK. NK had sent raiders trying to overthrow ROK Government. Nevertheless meetings were going on between United States and North Korea at Panmunjom which is ROK territory. Is it reasonable that talks should be held in such a place between US and NK? Parties must abide by agreements where international law is nonexistent.

4. There had been innumerable violations by NK and only ROK is abiding by international agreements, as all the world knows. But ROK has no means of retaliation because UN Command ties ROK Government’s hands and ROK troops cannot retaliate. This is far from ideal situation, PriMin said.

5. Meetings between US and NK create public suspicion. Public feels that ROK sovereignty is being discussed without ROK’s presence. So far the government has been quiet in order not to arouse public on this score. If Cuba raided Washington and attacked White House and ROK then began separate talks with Cuba, what would be the US attitude in such circumstances?

6. Ambassador Porter got permission of President Park for the talks and has reported regularly to the President on them. President’s agreement was only in principle for humanitarian purposes, and even [Page 332] though President consented in principle, close cooperation is necessary. PriMin would like to make recommendations.

7. Chong then said that if one or two more closed meetings are necessary US should try to include ROK representatives, even though ROK is not signatory to Armistice Agreement. There should at least be consultation with ROK representative after which US representative should act accordingly. If secret meetings continue and suspicion continues that matters pertaining to ROK sovereignty are discussed, there will be complications in our relationships. Ambassador and General Bonesteel should be reporting in strongest possible terms of real feelings of ROK public. Any Korean questioned about meetings at Panmunjom will give one answer only and it will be against such negotiations. Instead of closed or secret meetings ROK Government feels open meeting should be held. It is true that both sides would be militant in such meetings but people would know what was happening. They support their government in this most critical problem since the armistice. Even if closed meetings succeed in bringing about return of Pueblo and crew, there may be bad after effect. Much ill feeling had been created by division of the country years ago and current US talks with NK touching on sovereignty of the country make it impossible to predict how ROK people will react. PriMin wanted to be frank about all this. If US is forced to bow to North Korea to save our soldiers, NK would continue to try to decrease US influence and prestige.

8. United Nations has condemned NK, PriMin continued, and UN forces are here to act as police men, but if they fail to do job, what will be result? PriMin was not saying that there should be closed or open meetings or that joint meetings should not go on. The government’s preference was for open meeting but if it essential to have closed meetings they should be in cooperation with ROK representatives. Topics of discussion should not be limited to Pueblo but also to raid on Blue House which happened prior to Pueblo and should be given priority in discussion. President Park has asked about guarantees for the future. Americans should know that if President had not given order against it, ROK forces would have retaliated on limited basis. If North Koreans had succeeded in hitting Blue House there would have been all-out war. UN operational control is for purpose of protecting ROK security. If UN remains passive, PriMin asked, is this the wisest course? All ROK Ministers present had strong impulse after raid to bomb Kim Il-Sung where he stood. Without guarantee of security should the ROKs simply try to prolong their existence or face up to a showdown? They have considered this more seriously than anyone else. If there is another incident should they stand still?

9. Considering relationships between US [and ROK?] basic policy remained unchanged. If there is another incident, however, ROK will have to act. They are preparing limited retaliation measures.

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10. I then replied by saying that we will discuss carefully with our people ideas which PriMin put forth concerning meetings at Panmunjom and I would hope to come back to him with some comment on them in near future. He was entirely correct in saying that I have reported fully both in advance and after the fact on the meetings. I recognize that because of unusual aspects of this problem the ministers are having a difficult time with Assembly and the press, and we are searching for ways to help them. However, it was not within my authority to carry on ordinary type discussions, though I wish to be of help and do everything I could to ease the ministers’ situation. With regard to feeling that only Pueblo has been discussed at the meetings, this is not correct. As recently as yesterday we had mentioned first aggressive North Korean actions against the Republic of Korea as being responsible for situation that had been created.

11. Finally, in my comment, I said that we recognize that they are under great provocation. We have expressed complete solidarity with them in current situation. Regardless of nature of any provocation which they may yet experience, I wanted to make it clear that we expect complete consultation in advance of any action they may contemplate. This is what we had given and this is what we expect. The adverse effect of uncoordinated action could far outlast that of any incident and it is absolutely necessary for us to remain in full consultation regardless of type of provocation to which they might be subjected.

12. PriMin then said that two weeks have passed since raid on Seoul. Because of their dependence and trust he would request General Bonesteel to take up protection of the country. However, it looked to PriMin that US is so involved with Pueblo as not to be concerned with ROK security.

13. Gen Bonesteel recounted at length (see Bonesteel’s message KRA 0451 to Sharp and Wheeler)2 measures taken by UNC in cooperation with Ministry of Defense against infiltration and to protect country. There are many matters under consideration he said which would reassure them although it is still premature to get into detail until they fully considered. Bonesteel also laid great emphasis on requirement for complete consultation with us on their plans and intentions.

14. Foreign Minister then made brief statement to effect problem is to avoid public suspicion of what is going on, that open meetings [Page 334] at Panmunjom were the answer. Until now he did not know that there was any discussion of NK violations of Armistice and public believes there is none. I commented that in addition to assurance I had just given him that matter was mentioned yesterday at Panmunjom by US, there was substantial history of our statements giving proper emphasis to raid on Seoul and NK violation of DMZ, which if properly used in dealing with public and Assembly would do much to correct impressions and allay suspicions he mentioned. I cited statements in US, President Johnson’s statement on television on this subject, and said there was much additional material if they would but use it.

15. PriMin then said they would say to press and Assembly only that meeting had been held and that they had made their viewpoint clear to us. We then adjourned from this “secret meeting” and departed through most disorderly press gathering I have seen here, which is saying a lot.

16. Comment: Meeting was of course stated in part to show Assembly, press and military that government telling us the score. Despite threats of unilateral retaliatory action it does not change my opinion that at this point Park and closest advisors, despite their natural inclination, recognize need to restrain hotheads, among whom I include MND. They have permitted, and probably encouraged, some turbulence in Assembly and among public, however, which may sweep them along toward retaliatory action if another incident occurs. Underlying fact that they have not used material we have provided to save their face in connection with Panmunjom meetings is, we believe, deep down feeling that this may be moment to reunify the country and that if opportunity is lost, it may not come again. President Park’s personal regard for President Johnson, restraints we have built into system of command control here, as well as those we are exerting currently, have thus far paid off, but at this point ROKs need carefully watching.

17. Within day or two, or sooner, depending on how matters develop, I may give you some comment concerning desirability of special envoy.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–6 KOR N–US. Secret; Immediate;Nodis.
  2. In KRA 0451, February 6, Bonesteel reported that the “UNC would maintain mission and operational control to stop, the highest extent feasible, infiltration through front line divisions or through sea frontier,” and would to the greatest extent possible maintain the ROK’s internal security plans by providing all possible support and equipment. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Korea—Pueblo Incident, Military Cables, Vol. II, February 1968 to March 1968)