200. Special National Intelligence Estimate1
Washington, May 16, 1968.
THE LIKELIHOOD OF MAJOR HOSTILITIES IN KOREA
- We believe that, under present circumstances, Pyongyang does not intend to invade South Korea. Nor do we believe that, at least for the next year or so, Pyongyang will take actions that it considers involve high risk of provoking a new Korean War.2
- We do believe, however, that Pyongyang is engaged in a determined effort to apply its own version of the doctrine of “peoples’ war”: to provoke incidents along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and to carry out terrorist attacks throughout the South in hopes of creating a situation which would, in time, shake the ROK Government’s control of the nation.
- Pyongyang might be tempted to go well beyond incidents along the DMZ; e.g., it might attempt to seize and hold a piece of territory south of the DMZ or stage a raid into South Korea with fairly large forces. In general, however, we believe that Pyongyang would consider such moves too risky, especially any attempt to hold South Korean territory.
- Hence, in the short term, the principal danger is that of miscalculation; i.e., that the North Koreans will press so hard that Seoul will order large-scale retaliation. In this case, Pyongyang would be likely to respond with commensurate force, and there would be an increasing chance of escalation into major hostilities.
- The seizure of the Pueblo and the attack on the presidential mansion in Seoul, both in late January 1968, were followed by a period [Page 428] of relative quiet. Since mid-April, however, North Korean harassment and infiltration in the area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has intensified, and it appears that saboteurs have again been active in Seoul. With the advent of favorable weather, we expect guerrilla teams to begin moving down the coasts of South Korea in a renewed effort to establish bases in the mountainous hinterland.3 On the propaganda front, the bellicose line adopted by North Korean Premier Kim Il-Song at the October 1966 Korean Labor Party Conference has been maintained, with somewhat greater truculence since the Pueblo incident. It is apparent, therefore, that we are entering another cycle of North Korea’s campaign of violence and intimidation against the ROK.
- We have reviewed the available evidence and concluded once again that, under present circumstances, Pyongyang does not intend to invade South Korea. Nor do we believe that, at least for the next year or so, Pyongyang will take actions that it considers involve high risk of provoking a new Korean War. This judgment rests in part on our view of how North Korea would assess its prospects in a new war. Despite the emphasis on modernizing its armed forces, on training reserves and increasing local militia, and on the protection of key installations against air attack, Pyongyang almost certainly would not expect to overrun South Korea or to escape serious damage in the North. The ROK Army is superior in numbers; Pyongyang would almost certainly consider that the presence of US forces virtually assured their participation and their reinforcement if necessary; and North Korea itself would require material support, and probably manpower, from China or the USSR.4 Thus, any plans for a deliberate attack leading to a renewal of the Korean War would require the assurance of support from the USSR, China, or both. Under present circumstances, it is extremely doubtful that Pyongyang would receive any assurances in advance from either Communist power that the support required for a large-scale conflict in South Korea would be available.
- More directly, we do not see indications of preparations of the nature and scope we would expect to see if North Korea were planning war or expected it in the near future. There is, for example, no evidence—in this nation of chronic shortages—of unusually large imports of food or medicines, or other unusual international transactions. There [Page 429] have been rumors of increased draft calls, mobilization of reserves, unusual troop movements and deployments, and the buildup of stockpiles near the DMZ, but none of these or similar indicators of impending large-scale action are supported by reliable evidence. The “war is coming” tone of letters from North Korea to Japan appears to reflect official propaganda; such letters almost certainly suit the regime’s purposes since all outgoing mail is carefully censored. Finally, if North Korea were planning a surprise attack, it would seem unwise to foment tension and keep the ROK and the US on the alert.
- Nor do we believe that the North Koreans are trying to provoke the ROK into a resumption of major hostilities. Pyongyang might hope thus to activate its defense treaties with China and the USSR, and also to avoid condemnation by world opinion. But we do not believe that the North Korean leaders would expect either the USSR or Communist China to cooperate in a “counterattack” that could overrun the South.
- We do believe, however, that Pyongyang is engaged in a determined effort to create the conditions for a “peoples’ war” in South Korea. We also believe that Pyongyang currently rates the risks of this enterprise as not very high. The North Koreans probably view the US involvement in Vietnam and the resultant discord in the US as limiting the military capabilities and the will of the US to support any serious ROK retaliatory ventures against the North. US restraint in the Pueblo affair probably strengthened this view, and North Korean intelligence probably has a reasonably accurate picture of Washington’s pressures on the ROK to forgo strong retaliatory measures in the Blue House and other affairs.
- Thus, Pyongyang probably feels reasonably safe in creating incidents along the DMZ and in carrying out terrorist attacks throughout South Korea. These serve to give some credence at home to its claims of “imperialist aggression” and a developing resistance movement in the South. Pyongyang also intends them to embarrass and distract the ROK Government and to cause a loss of confidence in its leaders which could, in time, loosen their control of the nation. Meanwhile, these actions have caused some misunderstanding and strains between the ROK and the US.
- Pyongyang might be tempted to go well beyond incidents along the DMZ. It might, for example, attempt to seize and hold a piece of territory south of the DMZ or stage a raid into South Korea with fairly large forces. We do not entirely rule out such actions. They would depend on how Pyongyang judged the probable reactions of the US and ROK. In general, however, we believe that Pyongyang would consider such moves as too risky, especially any attempt to hold South Korean territory.
- Kim’s present course of action vis-e-vis South Korea dates from 1966, although some indications of long-range preparations for intensified action were visible earlier. After several years of economic difficulty at home and consistent failure to capitalize on political unrest in the South, the frustrated Kim attempted to inject some dynamism into his regime by securing tighter control over the government and driving the population to greater efforts in its behalf. He seems to have succeeded in pruning much of what he considered deadwood from the government, the party, the military, and the economy; a series of low-keyed purges has reduced his leadership group to a handful of trusted comrades; and Kim has demanded and is receiving personal adulation on an unprecedented scale.
- Public participation in the regime’s many new programs has been fostered (along with acceptance of hardships) by nationalistic exhortations to prepare for “the foremost revolutionary task”—i.e., a Communist takeover of the South and reunification on Pyongyang’s terms. In Kim’s doctrine, the success of the revolutionary struggle in the South requires parallel efforts to build up the revolutionary base in the North, to improve its economy so that it will impress the southerners, and to strengthen its defense against the day when reactionary forces in the South, in desperation, strike northward. It is apparent that to make this line credible requires, at a minimum, some evidence of revolutionary struggle in the South and a demonstrably aggressive enemy along the DMZ. War tensions apparently prevailing among the northerners are evidence that the regime has achieved some degree of success in its indoctrination program.
- This does not mean that North Korea will be satisfied with the mere semblance of a revolution in the South. Pyongyang’s violent actions in 1967, coupled with its longstanding campaign of political subversion in South Korea, attest to the seriousness of its purpose. But Pyongyang probably has little expectation of developing a revolutionary movement in the South in the near term. North Korean theoreticians tend to emphasize the inadequate basis for revolutionary action in the South and the time and energy required to develop one. Thus, the leadership probably views its current efforts as part of a long-term campaign to upset the political equilibrium in the South, meanwhile strengthening in some measure the existing Communist clandestine apparatus there.
- It is possible that North Korean leaders have persuaded themselves that political and military conditions in the US and in Korea, as well as in Vietnam, make this year the best time for a radical intensification of this revolutionary strategy. In our view, however, North Korea is not committed to any particular sequence of moves nor to any firm timetable. Pyongyang’s propaganda, in contrast to the statements of [Page 431] captured North Korean infiltrators, has invariably been vague on timing; the phrase most frequently used is “within our generation.” The North Korean plan of action appears similarly flexible; ROK and US defense measures and other responses, and the demonstrated effectiveness of various types of North Korean operations are the prime considerations. At any rate, to serve Pyongyang’s current strategy, the campaign of violence need only continue; there seems to be no requirement for escalation to the level of major hostilities.
- In this situation, the principal danger in the short term is one of miscalculation—i.e., that North Korea, in the process of probing ROK and US resolve, will overplay its hand and that an increasingly exasperated President Pak will order large-scale retaliation. Pyongyang’s response in this situation would be difficult to predict with any degree of confidence. On the one hand, the North Koreans might feel that they had to accept the ROK retaliation because, at this juncture, the risk of major hostilities would seem too high. It seems more likely, however, that they would feel compelled to respond with commensurate force. Though North Korea would probably stop short of actions certain to provoke a full-scale war, the proximity of hostile armies would make the situation highly volatile and war could result.
- In such a crisis, decisions in Pyongyang and Seoul on any further moves would probably be affected, and perhaps decisively, by the attitudes and advice of their major allies. In our view, neither the USSR nor Communist China would consider a war in Korea to be in its interest. Without flatly refusing Pyongyang all military support, they would probably encourage North Korea to limit hostilities.
- The Longer Term. In any case, a tense and risky situation is likely to continue in Korea well beyond the one year period of this estimate. Kim Il-Song is a relatively young man; he appears to be in firm control in the North; and his hard-line views are likely to hold sway there for many years. Of critical importance will be the ability of the ROK people over the years to stand united against Communist subversion, and the ability of ROK forces to cope effectively with North Korean harassments. ROK confidence in the face of these long-term threats will depend heavily on the US posture in the Far East.5
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, National Security Council History, Pueblo Crisis, 1968, Vol. XI, Background Documents. Secret; Controlled Dissem. According to a note on the cover sheet, the Central Intelligence Agency, the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State and Defense, and the National Security Agency participated in the preparation of this estimate. All members of the USIB concurred on May 16 except the representatives of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who abstained because the subject was outside their jurisdiction.↩
- The intelligence community had uncovered no signs of preparation for war in North Korea, despite reports to the contrary gathered from diverse sources. The President was kept apprised of the situation in Korea and received copies of those reports. (Memoranda from Rostow to President Johnson, May 4 and 24;CIA, Intelligence Information Cables TDCS–314/07456–68, May 3, TDCS–314/07314–68, May 3, TDCS–314/07385–68, May 13; all ibid., Country File, Korea, Cables, Vol. VI)↩
- The ROK continued implementation of a counterinfiltration program begun in 1967. (Telegram from Seoul, March 25, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 23–7 KOR S; airgram A–547 from Seoul, April 26, POL 23–3 KOR S; and airgram A–549 from Seoul, April 30, DEF 1 KOR S) In mid-1968 the Country Team studied South Korean counterinfiltration measures and prepared an analysis of internal security needs. (Airgram A–742 from Seoul, August 2; ibid., POL 23–1 KOR S)↩
- See Annex: North and South Korean Forces. [Footnote in the source text.]↩
- This report was part of a larger effort to evaluate and respond to the situation in Korea. The Department of State, the CIA, and the Strategic Air Command explored alternatives such as “raids, sabotage or other activities across the border which might either (a) deter the North Koreans or warn them of a stiffer attitude on our part, or (b) provide a safety-valve for pent up ROK frustration, or both.” The Pentagon also examined ways to defend against a range of potential actions by North Korea, and the intelligence community sought to close gaps in information about North Korea. (Memorandum from Brown to Katzenbach, May 14; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69,POL KOR S–US)↩