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

4083. Ref: A. State 111264; B. State 111263.2

I conveyed message contained Ref A to President Park this morning. He expressed appreciation for the increased military aid which he said would be useful in present situation. He is convinced that military buildup alone, however, is useless when dealing with person like Kim Il-Sung. He said American policy seemed to consist of efforts to extract Pueblo and crew and buildup on ROK side, which means ROKs must remain passive here in face of continual provocation. So far the anger of the ROK people has been contained because his government does not want war, but it will be impossible to remain passive when another incident occurs and he feels this is most likely.3 That will start a war in Korea again.
He had examined closely military posture and readiness of ROK and UN forces and they are certainly not ready for war as compared to North Koreans. This means they would perhaps suffer heavy damage initially but they would suffer even more if they await attack and do not take preventive measures. He has given US assurance that he would not take unilateral action and he wants prior consultation with the United States. He also has faith in competence and authority of UN Command, but lack of combat readiness disturbs him. He realizes that General Bonesteel has not been given a war mission but fact remains that entire position on our side now is such as to encourage Kim Il-Sung.4 He said an example of our unpreparedness is that approximately [Page 344] 200 US military aircraft had come into country and cannot be accommodated. There is even a problem of takeoff, and ROKAF planes were inferior to NK planes. A MIG–21 needs only to have a button pushed to take off, whereas the F–5 cannot start without auxiliary assistance. It is bad thing to have to sit and await attack. What would United States have done if he and his family had been assassinated? Would we have proceeded to negotiate?
Foregoing indicates pent-up emotions of ROK President at this point and he gave me two-and-a-half hours of it. I replied to his various points, emphasizing as I had done twice before that we depended on his leadership, restraint of hotheads and undertaking consultations in advance with us regardless of circumstances. On question on Kim Il-Sung I gave him report of recent developments to be reported separately.5
Before I got to subject he launched into strong denunciation of our move of Enterprise southward. Enterprise should have been moved northward, he said, with other carriers and placed off port of Wonsan. We should have announced port was closed until we got men and ship back. If this brought no action we should go in and take ship, and neither Russians nor ChiComs would interfere.
When he finished this aspect of his statement I gave him para seven of Ref B. He brushed this aside, saying that ROK closest ally of United States but our recent negotiating tactics are only encouraging Kim Il-Sung and creating distress among Korean people. Kim Il-Sung is a pirate and a thief, and he took a ship and raided Seoul in a criminal manner, and now the US expects to get results by talking to him. What makes US think such tactics will work?
I said I know he understands that our commitment in ROK is to protect the integrity and security of South Korea. That we are intent on doing, as he could see from the very generous measures being taken, but we are not going to give up possibility of achieving settlement of Pueblo incident through peaceful means. If population here is disturbed it is, as I told Prime Minister and other ministers, because proper use had not been made of all of the statements of solidarity and support and all of the evidence of it provided by United States since this crisis developed.
There was a great deal of repetitive material of similar nature in his remarks, and he made a special point of asking that they be transmitted to President Johnson. I said the President had made it clear in public announcements that President Park’s views are heard and considered and acted upon on a daily basis. And he could rest assured [Page 345] that this would continue to be the case. However we do expect him to understand, as the message said, that the two matters of DMZ violations and the Pueblo have to be handled separately. We are convinced that this is only rational way to go about it.
Interview terminated and I left President’s office to find that Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs had been sitting outside with rather obvious ill humor for an hour. Shortly thereafter I received phone call from confidential interpreter Cho who stated that President, after rereading President Johnson’s letter, wished to make it clear that he is against closed meetings at Panmunjom. I said I took note of this.
He had made no mention of this except in general terms of meetings at Panmunjom and did not voice to me his opposition to closed meetings. I did say to him at beginning of our interview that there would be mention of Panmunjom in message from President but, as he knew, I would be discussing this matter as necessary with Prime Minister and did not intend to get into it unless he wished to do so himself. Of course during message itself and subsequent conversation dealing with our general negotiating tactics he made frequent reference to Panmunjom and, as he put it, the distrust aroused locally by our tactics.
I am seeing Prime Minister shortly, who will probably reiterate their opposition to closed meetings. I intend to make it clear that we cannot see our only line of contact cut on this subject. Comment: We have had suggestions from various quarters that if we could accept ROK officer at Panmunjom, not to participate but for show purposes, this would do much to allay their suspicions and would help with public. I am not certain of value of this argument because underlying all the heaving about is something else which we have described to you, which is their hungering desire, which Park shares, to close with the North Koreans. However, if you feel you can authorize this on an absolutely non-veto, non-delay basis, I would like to offer it to them.
Your Ref B suggests meeting be set up tomorrow. We can do this but I would like your comments on this message if possible before proceeding because it is quite possible that we may be approaching showdown stage with ROKs on issue of closed meetings at Panmunjom.
On most important matter of restraining ROKs, we may well be at point where we should repeat injunction to Syngman Rhee who at one time also felt need to go north. There is enough danger now without more provocation from NKs but situation will become very much worse if that happens.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–6 KOR N–US. Secret; Flash;Nodis; Cactus. President Johnson was given a typed copy of this telegram along with a February 8 memorandum from Rostow, who noted that the message “indicates the depth of our problem with the South Koreans.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Korea—Pueblo Incident—Cactus II, Cactus Seoul Cables, January 29 to February 9, 1968)
  2. Documents 159 and 158.
  3. General Bonesteel reported on his seemingly effective efforts to persuade the ROK Joint Chiefs of the “unwisdom of a unilateral, uncoordinated, rash action taken in anger by ROKs alone,” but added that he remained unconvinced that the “emotional reaction from top ROKs can entirely be controlled.” (Telegram KRA 0490 from Seoul, February 8; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Korea—Pueblo Incident, Military Cables, Vol. II, February 1968 to March 1968)
  4. Bonesteel recommended that U.S. and ROK military forces begin considering ways to improve vulnerabilities, such as constructing additional airfields in more secure locations, and examining ways “to insure North Korea cannot continue to enjoy complete sanctuary in its territory if it engages further in suicide-team raids against ROK.” He commented that “if we can develop a ROK ‘porous war’ totally black method of insuring no sanctuary for NK held under joint US/ROK control, this would really face up to gut problem remaining between U.S. and ROK has many things to recommend it.” (Ibid.)
  5. Not further identified.