101. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Laird to President Nixon 1


  • Trip to Republic of Korea

General. I visited the Republic of Korea (ROK) on July 11–14. During that period, I visited US and ROK units; made a special trip to the DMZ; had lengthy—and I believe, productive—private discussions with top US and ROK officials; and participated in the annual USROK Security Consultation Meeting.2

In this report, I shall describe each of the activities briefly, provide my main impressions, and conclude with some generalizations and recommendations.


A. Visits with US and ROK Units

I visited Camp Casey, headquarters of the US 2d Infantry Division; Camp St. Barbara, now utilized by ROK Army artillery units; and Suwon Air Base, home of the 10th ROKAF Tactical Fighter Wing. I found the US and ROK ground units in excellent condition, with modern equipment, up-to-date training, and high morale. The ROK artillery unit I visited had assumed a major artillery supporting role from US units only six months ago. Both ROK and US officers were high in praise of the rate and skill with which the ROKs had assumed their new tasks, even though it had meant transitioning to different and more modern equipment. The consensus was that the ROKs were as effective as, if not more effective than, the US units they replaced. The US officials considered this transition illustrative of the overall possibilities for the ROKs’ assumption of additional ground combat missions.

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The ROK Air Force unit I visited was equipped with modern F–4 and F–5A fighters, obsolescent F–86s, and a mixture of relatively modern support aircraft. The base, typical of the ROKAF structure, was equipped with sufficient hardened shelters for each of its front-line tactical fighters. As with the ROK ground units, the skill, training, and esprit of the ROKAF officers and men were obviously of the highest order. Also, as with the ground units, the leadership provided throughout the ROK defense structure was superior. It was apparent that the ROK modernization program, in general, is proceeding soundly and expeditiously.

The single most glaring deficiency is in equipment used by the ROK Air Force. Some of the aircraft, especially the F–86s, are old and could not be expected to match the equipment now in the North Korean inventory. The modernization program for the ROKAF recognizes the need for better aircraft and includes systematic acquisition of more advanced fighters. I have accelerated the delivery of the ten F–5As in the FY 71 MAP program. Those aircraft would have been delivered in March 1972. Under a revised delivery schedule, I specified that they be delivered not later than August/September 1971.

I did not have the opportunity to visit ROK naval units. US and ROK officials assured me that the component is also progressing well under the modernization program. Their chief request is for so-called “Fast Boats,” which would be used to counter sea-borne infiltration. “Fast Boats” are included in the modernization plan, though the rate of delivery is somewhat slower than the ROKs like. In the meantime, US officials contend the ROKs have developed an effective intelligence, air, and sea tactical component which is doing a creditable job in countering North Korean attempts at Seaborne infiltration.

B. Visit to the DMZ .

Even a brief visit to the DMZ is enough (a) to confirm the presence of a persistent enemy, (b) to indicate the intensity with which the ROKs feel the presence of the North Korean threat, and (c) to illustrate the dedication and effectiveness with which the ROKs treat that threat. From an observation post on the DMZ, east of Kaesong, I saw a wide expanse of the ROK fence line, a ROK unit on patrol, and at least three North Korean observation posts and firing positions. It is sobering to see the situations which we call on brave men to handle and to witness those dedicated men at their tasks.

C. Private Discussions With US and ROK Officials

In addition to meeting with Ambassador Porter, General Michaelis, and other top officials of the US country team, I talked at some length with President Pak and Minister of Defense Jung. In addition, I made courtesy calls on Prime Minister Kim and the ROK Minister of Foreign Affairs (also a Kim). I shall outline briefly the gist of those discussions.

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(1) US Country Team. Ambassador Porter and General Michaelis obviously maintain close and effective surveillance of, and working relationships with, the ROK leadership. Our country team anticipated virtually every issue which the ROKs raised. Our top officials provided, before my private meetings with the ROKs and before the formal Consultation Meeting, incisive and useful analyses of the situation and problems facing us in the Korean peninsula. I shall outline those issues through the remainder of this report.

(2) President Pak . The Republic of Korea President started our discussion by inquiring of your health and asking me to relay to you his best wishes. He expressed his gratitude for the historical friendship displayed by the United States, the harmonious relationship between the two nations, the extent of the sacrifices made by the United States in behalf of his nation, and the important contributions being made by the US in the on-going ROK Modernization program.

The key points President Pak made to me were as follows:

  • —The current ROK stability and development successes are direct functions of the aid and assistance offered by the US since World War II.
  • —The ROKs are trying to develop self-reliance, and thereby relieve the burden on the US. The ROKs have no intent of asking US troops to stay in the Republic of Korea indefinitely. He hoped the US would retain its capability in South Korea until the ROKs did attain self-sufficiency.
  • —The ROKs would keep about 600,000 men in their active forces (about their current level) in the Republic of Korea for the indefinite future. [As ROK troops are withdrawn from the Republic of Vietnam, that means some unit deactivations. Minister Jung later told me the plan was to deactivate one division plus a Marine brigade in the latter part of 1972 to keep at the 600,000 level.]3
  • —There is justification for the view that North Korea would not invade the South unless help were provided by the Soviet Union and/or Red China. Pak thought such help was not likely now. Nevertheless, the sizeable North Korean forces now in existence and the irrationality of Kim Il Sung constitute a real and substantial threat. The theme of Kim Il Sung’s impetuosity and fanaticism as the key element in the threat was persistent throughout all ROK discussions.
  • —If any indications were given of ROK military or political weakness, Kim Il Sung would try to exploit the situation.
  • —The Republic of Korea will remove, as we already knew, 1 brigade (10,000 men) from South Vietnam between December 1971 and [Page 257]June 1972. Though President Pak and the ROK officials were emphatic, and even sensitive, about the autonomy of their decisions concerning ROK forces in Southeast Asia, it seemed clear their RVN troop levels would be adjusted downward as US forces were withdrawn from SEA.

The points I tried to impress on President Pak were as follows:

  • —The ROKs can make additional major constructive steps toward self-reliance in weapons production. The M–16 rifle and ammunition plants are only examples of what can be done. [President Pak agreed.]
  • —The rate and composition of the ROK modernization program will bear close scrutiny. I noted you were pressing Congress for virtually all program elements the ROKs deemed desirable. Yet, I cautioned that (a) Congress is a co-equal branch of government in the US; (b) Congressional approval is not assured; and (c) the attempt by the ROKs to put most of the spending in the early years (front-loading) might be more than the ROK armed forces or the ROK economy could digest.
  • —You had asked for sufficient funds and manpower in FY 72 to hold US forces in South Korea at about their current levels. Again, positive Congressional concurrence was not assured. Already, I told Pak, the Armed Services’Committee conference had specified a 50,000-man reduction for US ground forces. If approved by the Congress, we would have to allocate that reduction in the least harmful way possible.
  • —The US programs in the Republic of Vietnam are going well. The single most critical area now for the RVN is that of will and desire and the determination to get the job done. Neither the US nor any other nation can supply those ingredients for the South Vietnamese. I expressed the hope that President Pak would apply sound logic in considering any future withdrawal of ROK forces, i.e., linking ROK troop presence to the capability of the RVNAF to perform the tasks now being done by the ROKs. I cautioned President Pak about linking ROK presence in South Vietnam to that of the US or any other third nation. I observed that if the US had followed such a pattern in his nation (Republic of Korea), the US would long ago have withdrawn from Pak’s country. I suggested that Pak should gauge ROK troop pressure in RVN against mutual ROK/RVN interests.

(3) Minister of Defense Jung . Minister of Defense Jung presented 14 points to me. For the most part, they involved details in the Modernization program. The thesis of Jung’s comments was to ask for more US assistance at a more rapid rate. He did cover a few items involving the principles of US/ROK security relationships. In addition to responding to Jung’s points, I raised four basic points, all of principle.

Jung’s fourteen points were as follows:

Outlook for US Military Assistance to ROK in FY 72. Jung asked for clarification on our FY 72 intentions. I gave him our proposed program [Page 258]in some detail, indicating the total would be nearly $440 million (excluding $15 million FMS credits), as follows:

Grant MAP $240 M
—Excess Defense Articles $100 M
—Equipment of withdrawing US forces $100 M
$400 M

Fast Boats/Killer Boats. Jung wanted as much help in this area of interdicting seaborne infiltration as possible. I told him we had a destroyer in the FY 72 program, that we were accelerating funding on the Fast Boat program, and that we would see what other help might be possible.

F–4s–F–5s. Jung expressed hope for 6 more F–4s; the earliest delivery of any nation on the forthcoming international Fighter (F–5E); and any other help possible in the tactical fighter area. I told him we would look at the F–4 proposition, had already included funding in the FY 72 MAP program for at least two of the early F–5Es, and would accelerate delivery to August/September 1971 on 10 F–5As. The ROKs were especially pleased with the latter action.

Automated Air Defense System. Jung requested the US provide an automated or semi-automated Air Defense System. I told him we would look into the proposition. I frankly have no idea of the relative merits or costs of such a system at the present time.

ROK Forces in South Vietnam. Jung told me again of the ROK plans to withdraw 10,000 men between December 1971 and June 1972. Without specifying any dates, he said that by the time the US forces in RVN were at the 40,000/80,000 level, the ROKs would reduce to about 5,000 men (from the current level of about 47,000).

ROK Equipment from RVN . Not surprisingly, Jung asked that the ROK units leaving South Vietnam be allowed to take back to Korea their equipment, without such actions being counted against MAP. I told Jung it might be possible to allow such actions without counting against MAP, but that it would have to count against the overall $1.5 billion Modernization program.

Defense Industries. The ROKs want added FMS credits to buy machinery for the M–16 ammunition plant. Also, the ROKs are eager to start an Agency for Defense Development (ADD) with a view toward doing more in-country R&D. I said we would look at both proposals.

US Forces in Korea and the UN Command Structure. The ROKs, again not surprisingly, want assurances of no imminent US troop reductions in Korea and for retention of the current command structure. I gave no assurances on troop levels, but said the US would adhere to its position for the foreseeable future in support of the UN command structure.

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Retention of Old Equipment being Supplanted by New Equipment under the Modernization Program. The ROKs want to keep the old equipment, like M–47 tanks, which is being replaced by new equipment, like M–48 tanks. I explained, supporting General Michaelis’ views, that such actions posed for the ROKs a formidable and unsupportable maintenance task. I agreed, however, we would look at ROK proposals on a selective basis.

—[5 lines not declassified] I responded with an absolute and unequivocal “No,” amplifying with a plain and blunt rationale.

SR–71 Flights. Jung asked that SR–71 flights be resumed to provide intelligence information to the ROKs. I indicated we would continue, as we were now doing, to provide the best feasible intelligence information to the ROKs on North Korean activities. That may or may not include resumption of SR–71 flights.

US Policy in the Event of North Korean Attempts to Invade South Korea. Jung asked for an explanation of US policy. I assured him the US would comply with the existing treaty, but that that treaty required Congressional approval before US units could be overtly committed. I cautioned ROK officials against assuming that our treaty involved any so-called “automatic” provisions like that of NATO.

Relations Involving Japan. Jung asked for clarification on US policy towards Japan and toward ROK relationships with Japan. I told him the US was not now concerned as much with resurgent Japanese militarism as with Japan’s failure to modernize its limited conventional forces. I explained further that we encouraged regional cooperation, particularly among air and naval forces, by the ROKs and Japan. Jung said he wanted to develop stronger regional ties to include joint air and sea exercises and officer exchange programs. He said he hoped to meet with the new Japanese Director of the Defense Agency, Masuhara, at an early date.

ROK Force Size. Jung simply reaffirmed the ROK policy that the active regular ROK forces would be kept at a level of 600,000 men. He reviewed again the intention in mid-to-late 1972 of deactivating one Army division, plus a Marine brigade.

I raised four basic points with Minister Jung. They were:

  • The Threat. I asked Jung how he privately viewed the security threat to South Korea. He gave a fairly conventional response, except that he indicated he felt the North Koreans could and would impose on South Korea only in case political or defense targets of opportunity arose. With President Pak in place for the next four years, Jung felt there would be no political targets of opportunity. With the current and prospective ROK military forces, he thought an effective military deterrent would be provided. While Jung did not state the logical conclusion, the result of his observations would be that except for occasional North Korean attempts at infiltration or harassment, the [Page 260]prospective situation between North and South Korea is one of regulated, if uneasy, stability.
  • Relaxation of Tensions or Negotiations. I asked Jung what he thought of prospects for relaxing tensions and even possibly negotiations, between North and South Korea. He thought the chances slight in the near term but that “step-by-step” measures might be possible by 1975–76.
  • ROK Force Planning. I observed to Jung that the ROKs seemed to approch their force planning unrealistically. I asked him if they were doing any planning under the assumption of existing and/or programmed ROK and US resources. It is obvious the ROKs are not. Their planning implicitly assumes an open-ended arrangement in which the US will provide added funds where certain deficits and burdens will arise.
  • ROK Forces in RVN . My questions on this item pre-empted a point Jung had intended to raise with me. The resultant discussion was as outlined earlier in this memorandum.

(4) Prime Minister Kim . Perhaps more directly than any other ROK official, Prime Minister Kim delineated ROK policy linking national security goals to economic goals. Kim’s exposition was roughly as follows:

  • —In view of the North Korean threat, the Republic of Korea needs to maintain a force at least equal to the currently-in-place capability and effectiveness.
  • ROK forces must be sized to stay within the capability of the ROK economy.
  • —Therefore, South Korea must move towards an “elite” force—implicitly smaller in total size than the current force.
  • —To stay within the limits of the ROK economy, the US would have to supply the hardware necessary for ROK modernization in the “elite” force. The US might even have to supply some of the operations and maintenance funds.

The one additional interesting comment made by Kim was an assertion that, under President Pak, the South Koreans would not “provoke” North Korea. This was apparently to assure the US the ROKs would not use the Modernization program to develop an offensive capability. In subsequent discussions, it became clear the ROK Modernization plan was, per se, a provocation (albeit unavoidable) to the North Koreans.

D. US/ROK Security Consultation Meeting. Many of the points discussed in the formal Consultation Meeting were repetitions of items covered in private discussions. Among the key issues which were not covered in other conversations were the following:

ROK economic goals (presumably growth, stability, and foreign trade) would take precedence over national security goals in areas where the goals conflicted.
It would be explicit ROK policy that defense outlays would not exceed 5 percent of the ROK gross national product. (Recent outlays have been slightly less than 5 percent.) Added O&M outlays under proposed ROK policies would call for either (a) expenditures slightly greater than 5 percent of GNP or (b) added US assistance above that currently planned in the O&M area. It is clear the ROKs will press for the latter.
The inability of the ROK government to sort out priorities consistent with its interpretation of the North Korean threat became apparent. The ROKs want a large, modern force as rapidly as possible; yet, they have not faced the realization that the US cannot serve indefinitely as a grant aid provider to the extent the ROKs desire. The ROKs give lip-service to reorganizing the serious problems associated with maintaining a large modern defense force. Yet, they are seeking to accumulate additional and even counterproductive maintenance burdens before they have sorted out their current allocations. Of the $1.5 billion Modernization program, some 60 percent is intended for investment in new hardware. Forty percent is intended for O&M. It is not clear that such O&M burdens are justified militarily, consistent with US capabilities to provide help, or consistent with ROK economic goals.

In addition to surfacing the issues outlined above, the Consultation Meeting addressed (a) a more detailed delineation of the North Korean threat; (b) the composition and phasing of the ROK Modernization program; and (c) the ROK Homeland Defense Reserve Force.

Main Impressions

The general tenor of the various discussions and activities in the Republic of Korea was that of congeniality, harmony and candor. The tensions and rancor that had typified some previous high level ROK/US meetings were absent. I was pleased to note that, in Ambassador Porter’s judgment, the Nixon Doctrine was given renewed meaning. I hope—and, indeed, I believe—we were able to impress upon the ROK leadership our intent to move ahead in the 1970’s under your basic tenets of strength, partnership, and a willingness to negotiate.

In a more specific way, I came away from Korea with the following impressions:

  • —There is a sufficient military deterrent in the Republic of Korea at the present time. Moreover, ROK military strength is growing. The Modernization program is going well. The deterrent to North Korea will be more than sufficient in the foreseeable future.
  • —In many important ways the ROKs display the will, desire, and determination to preserve their basic freedoms. This is especially evident at the level of the individual ROK units.
  • —In other ways, the ROKs show evidence of ambivalence and contradictions in their attitude towards national security. This is especially evident in the highest councils of their government and in their security planning. On the one hand, they espouse conviction that the North Korean threat is large and imminent. On the other hand, the ROKs have blatantly put an arbitrary ceiling on the extent to which they will commit ROK resources to their own defense (5 percent of GNP). The ROKs are clearly counting, both explicitly and implicitly, on the United States to provide many of the fundamental resources, especially hardware and operations and maintenance funds (but not to exclude US manpower), requisite to preservation of an adequate deterrent.

The contradictions and inconsistencies in ROK defense planning are evident in a number of ways:

  • —The existing North Korean threat is typified on the one hand as large and imminent and on the other hand as quiescent as long as the ROKs display political and military stability. The ROKs contend that despite existing and prospective political and military stability, the threat is still high.
  • —If the threat is as immediate and intense as the ROKs frequently indicate, they could surely sacrifice more in their behalf.
  • —The provision by the US of manpower, equipment, and O&M funds creates for the US the same kinds of economic problems the ROKs want to avoid (inflation, restricted growth, and balance of payments disequilibrium). The ROKs are asking us to assume such economic risks and burdens to meet their security threat.
  • —The US has spent well above 5 percent of its GNP for security since 1950—much of it in the early years of that period directly in the ROKs behalf. It is not unreasonable, despite the ROK low level of income, to ask the ROKs to assume more of their own security burden.
  • —The ROKs place great credence on the autonomy and independence of their decisions in redeploying their forces from South Vietnam. Yet, they are clearly planning to link such deployments to the US redeployment schedule.
  • —The ROKs contend they want to give economic stability a high—if not highest—priority. Yet, they are seeking to “front-load,” i.e., accelerate, the 5-year Modernization program into the early years such as FY 72 and FY 73. Such acceleration, without substantial additional US assistance, would clearly impact adversely on the ROK economy.
  • —The basic ROK approach is not unlike that of Samuel Gompers’ labor movement in the late 1800’s. They simply want “more,” no matter what the category and no matter how inconsistent the context.

The ROKs admit to many, if not most, of the basic contradictions and inconsistencies in current ROK defense planning. That gives hope for instilling realism into the future ROK national security programs.

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Additional hope can be garnered from the effectiveness and candor of the current US country team. Rarely have I seen such an outstanding group, both from the standpoint of representing basic US interests and from the standpoint of helping the host nation. I would hope that prospective changes in the US country team leadership would not change that healthy situation.

The ROKs appear sincere in their assertion they play no overt political or military threat to the North Koreans. There is hope, although dim at present, for more fundamental diplomatic resolution of the problems confronting the Korean peninsula.

Conclusions and Recommendations

We have in the Republic of Korea a staunch and dedicated ally. We should continue to cultivate that relationship in the spirit of harmony and candor.
The composite ROK/US military capability in Korea at the present time constitutes an adequate deterrent. That deterrent will be maintained as we modernize the ROK armed forces. We should, therefore, continue the Modernization program basically on its current schedule.
US troop levels can be reduced further. Starting in FY 73, as the ROK Modernization program shows results, the US should plan to reduce its ground forces by at least 14,000 additional men.
The single largest drawback in the current and near-term ROK force structure is in tactical air. The US should maintain a tactical air presence in South Korea for the indefinite future. In addition, the US should retain the capability to maintain a sea presence, part of which would be carrier forces and its ancillary tactical air, in waters close to South Korea.
It is important that intelligence covering the North Korean threat be timely and accurate. We should maintain US intelligence functions in and over the Korean peninsula for the indefinite future and seek to increase the effectiveness of the US/ROK intelligence functions.
ROK defense planning includes a number of basic and troublesome inconsistencies. We should continue to move the ROKs towards resolution and elimination of these inconsistencies.
Mel Laird
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 227, Agency Files, Dept of Defense, 16 May–31 Jul 71, Vol. XII. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Kissinger forwarded Laird’s memorandum to Nixon under a July 22 memorandum. A notation on Kissinger’s memorandum indicates the President saw it. Kissinger summarized Laird’s conclusions and recommendations as follows: “The ROK is a staunch and dedicated ally, and we should continue to cultivate that relationship with it in the spirit of harmony and candor. The present composite ROK/US military capability constitutes an adequate deterrent.” He continued: “Starting in FY 73, we should plan to reduce U.S. ground force strength in Korea by at least 14,000 additional men. We should maintain a tactical air presence in Korea for the indefinite future.”
  2. For Laird’s conversation with Nixon on July 22 about his trip to Korea, see Document 102.
  3. All brackets are in the original.