312. Memorandum From Alfred Jenkins of the National Security Council Staff to the President's Special Assistant (Rostow)1

Walt:

I have just learned that the Pueblo is on today's luncheon agenda. Attached is the best recent summary of where we are, which I have just received from State. I don't think any of us are very sanguine about the North Koreans buying this tactic, although it comes closer than any of us would like to a helicopter-type receipt. I have reluctantly come to the view that we should try this approach since other alternatives seem to be even less appealing. September 9 may, of course, make this ploy unnecessary but I would be very surprised if all of the crew were released then.2

Al

Attachment

Action Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Brown) to Secretary of State Rusk

SUBJECT

  • Status of Pueblo Talks at Panmunjom

The talks have, for some time, been at an impasse. The North Koreans insist on our admitting, and apologizing for, espionage and intrusion into their territorial waters. Then, they say, we “need not worry about the release of the crew.”

We have refused to admit espionage or to apologize for acts we are morally certain we did not commit. Various forms of conditional apology (e.g., we regret any intrusion that may have occurred) have been rejected.

[Page 698]

Consequently, by authorization of the President on May 18, we began to explore the possibility of General Woodward writing across the face of a document presented by the North Koreans an acknowledgment of the receipt of the crew and signing it. If the North Koreans accepted this they would presumably claim that we had signed their piece of paper and we would say that we had signed only what Woodward had written. We tried to explain this ploy in detail to the North Koreans through an Australian contact in Tokyo, but we are not sure whether this really ever got through to Pyongyang or whether Pak knows about it.

Under Secretary Katzenbach reviewed the situation on August 13 with Ambassador Dobrynin without mentioning the over-write plan. There has been no feedback from this demarche. At our request, a number of other governments have approached the North Koreans but were given the standard response: “Let the Americans apologize.”

President Park has been kept informed by Ambassador Porter.3

For the last two or three meetings we have been asking the North Koreans if they would release the crew if Woodward acknowledged receipt of the men “on a document” satisfactory to the North Koreans.

The Twentieth Closed Meeting on August 29 produced an interesting exchange.4 General Woodward repeatedly tried to get General Pak to say yes or no to our latest formulation: “If I were to acknowledge receipt of the crew on a document whose language was satisfactory to you, would you simultaneously release the crew?” On the third go-round Woodward said, “If you were to simultaneously release the crew, I would acknowledge receipt of a document whose language was satisfactory to you.” Pak pounced on this, “noted that your side is ready to sign our document of apology and assurance”, and promised a further comment later. Woodward said, “Your statement contains language I did not use,” and recessed.

The question is what instructions to give Woodward for the next meeting.

It seems clear that we should continue to try to pin Pak down to release of the crew simultaneously with any signing. It is unlikely, however, that he would do more than agree to release the crew within [Page 699]a day or two after a document was signed. Are we willing to take the risk of signing and relying on North Korean promise to deliver the crew? How long could we wait?

In the case of the helicopter pilots (1964), the North Koreans demanded and got our signature on a receipt—admitting espionage—without any promise of when the pilots would be released. They then immediately offered to release the next day and they did so. They keep saying at Panmunjom “There is a precedent. What more assurance do you want?” We feel that Pak is most unlikely to agree to actual release simultaneous with signature, and that 24 or 48 hours between signature and release would probably not hurt but that we need a commitment that it would be no longer.

Recommendation: That we accept up to a 48 hour interval.

It is possible that Pak might agree to simultaneous release and bring the crew to Panmunjom, but would reject a document if it consisted only of an over-write with Woodward's signature, and threaten to take the crew away again. Under those conditions, should Woodward then sign the document the North Koreans want?

Comment: It is probable that an officer of Woodward's rank and experience would sign even though his instructions did not authorize such action, unless he were expressly forbidden to do so.

We had planned, if Pak agrees to simultaneously, to tell him precisely what we would do, i.e. over-write but not sign the actual North Korean draft. Pak might well reject this ploy if he understood exactly what we planned to do. What then should be our position?

Recommendation: That we do not spell out our proposal further. The ploy might just work, and explanation is likely to kill it.

It is possible that the North Koreans would release only part of the crew, for example, all of the enlisted men but not the officers. Would we sign either the over-write or the North Korean apology in order to get part of the men back?

It would be difficult to reveal nothing to the press and Congress on their debriefings, difficult to prevent leaks, yet difficult to say anything of what we learned from those released without hurting those still held. And it would seem logical for the North Koreans to hold some back as hostages to deter our denouncing whatever “receipt” we may sign, to prevent us from issuing a White Paper, etc. Yet obviously we cannot refuse to accept a part of the crew unless the terms are utterly outrageous.

Recommendation: If we can get back all the enlisted men, or even half or more, we should sign while reiterating our demand for release of the others. We should refuse to sign anything for a merely token release.

The papers today and previous rumors have reported that there would be a major development with respect to Pueblo on September 9 [Page 700]at the celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the DPRK. Should we call for a meeting before or after September 9?

Recommendation: That we wait until after September 9. If anything is to happen on that date the decision was probably taken some time ago. We are unlikely to learn anything from Pak. If he wants to comment constructively on Woodward's statement at the 20th Meeting, he can let us know. Any further clarification on our part might cool him off.

Decisions on these points are needed as soon as possible, since Woodward needs instructions in case of unexpected developments.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Korea—Pueblo Incident—Miscellaneous, Vol. I. Secret.
  2. The North Koreans planned a major celebration on September 9 to commemorate the anniversary of their independence. In telegram 234620 to Seoul, September 7, the Department of State forwarded guidelines for Woodward's use in the event the North Koreans did release some or all crew members on September 9. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–6 KOR N–US)
  3. Porter reported after briefing him on August 27 President Pak appeared puzzled by the overwrite ploy and “strongly advised against anything resembling apology.” (Telegram 9415 from Seoul, August 27; ibid.)
  4. Telegram 210445 to Seoul, July 27, and telegram 223042 to Seoul, August 16, transmitted Woodward's instructions for the meeting. Telegram 9475 from Seoul, August 29, transmitted a summary of the meeting, which lasted from 11 a.m. to 12:47 p.m. KST. Telegram 9476 from Seoul, August 29, transmitted the verbatim text of the meeting. (All ibid.)