106. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Mr. Pyong-choon Hahm, Special Assistant to the President of Korea for Political Affairs
  • Brigadier General Alexander M. Haig, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Mr. John A. Froebe, Jr., NSC Staff Member

General Haig, noting that Mr. Hahm had relatively recently assumed his new position, asked him for his early impressions of his job. Hahm said that one of the first problems that he had come up against was China’s move to get back onto the international scene. As regards the internal Chinese politics of the move, the PLA as well as the civil bureaucracy was supporting this new direction in foreign policy. As to China’s willingness to engage in a dialogue with the U.S., Mr. Hahm thought a major motivation was the Soviet question.

Need for Continued U.S. Military Presence in South Korea

Addressing himself to the substance of the U.S.–PRC dialogue, Mr. Hahm said that he thought that the Chinese would find it easier to tolerate a U.S. rather than a Japanese military presence in Asia because the U.S. has no territorial ambitions. In fact, it could be said the Chinese even need the U.S. in Asia as a hedge against Japan. As regards the Korean peninsula, the Chinese in all probability do not want a U.S. troop withdrawal from South Korea—the U.S. presence is in Peking’s eyes probably an essential guarantee against Japan hegemony over South Korea.

As to South Korean views on this question, Mr. Hahm said the top priority for the ROK Government is to prevent another war on the Korean peninsula. If it believed it necessary to attain this object, the ROK Government would probably be willing to recognize Pyongyang. However, in making such a move, Seoul would want to extract the maximum possible concessions from North Korea.

Most importantly, since President Park’s statement of August 15 last year, Seoul has pursued a line of trying to induce Pyongyang to recognize and deal with it rather than attempting to overthrow the ROK Government through subversion and to use force to unify Korea. Mr. Hahm recognized that such a shift would pose considerable difficulties [Page 273]for Pyongyang, given its hard public stance on this question. Secondly, Seoul would want North Korea to sit in the U.N. along with South Korea, but on the condition that Pyongyang recognize the competence of the U.N. to deal with the Korean question—although Mr. Hahm said that his government might be willing to modify this condition to insist only on North Korea’s acceptance of the principles of the U.N. Charter.

Returning to the question of a U.S.–China dialogue, Mr. Hahm said that Chou En-lai is probably uneasy over the prospect of too rapid an increase of Japanese influence in Asia. In the light of this, Chou probably would like to have President Nixon’s assurance that the U.S. has moved from confrontation to negotiation, for under confrontation Japanese influence can increase more easily. Chou may also want to ask the U.S. to redefine its relationship with Japan. He thus is seeking U.S. agreement to a new political framework for Asia.

Turning to the geo-political importance of the Korean peninsula, Mr. Hahm characterized the peninsula as “a bone stuck in the throat of all three powers” [Japan, China, and the Soviet Union].2 If the Japanese get a foothold on the peninsula, this will be regarded by Peking as a threat. Expressing his own view, Mr. Hahm said that a rivalry between the three powers on the peninsula is intrinsically unstabilizing. Historically, the effect of a Japanese presence on the peninsula and the ensuing three power rivalry was seen in the failure of Teddy Roosevelt’s solution—allowing a Japanese foothold on the peninsula, which only opened the way for a later Japanese move into Manchuria. Mr. Hahm noted in passing that Japan has always justified its military expansion in terms of Japan’s vital need to secure overseas sources of raw materials and markets.

Mr. Hahm said that Chou En-lai is much concerned over the possibility of the Korean peninsula being pushed into the Japanese orbit. United States involvement in South Korea is acceptable to Chou—the Chinese will always choose U.S. militarism over Japanese militarism. The U.S. could make its military presence more tolerable to Peking if it (U.S.) would redefine its role in South Korea as that of a referee between the three powers. At present Chou is scared to death that the U.S. will completely withdraw its military presence from South Korea, leaving a vacuum that will suck Japan in.

Mr. Hahm said that he found the State Department taking the position that an increasing Japanese influence in South Korea growing out of its expanding investment there is harmless. The Chinese, however, see a vital qualitative difference between U.S. and Japanese investment. The Chinese believe, on the basis of historical experience, [Page 274]that a resurgence of Japanese militarism will follow almost inevitably from Japanese overseas economic expansion. The present situation gives support for such fears: U.S. markets are being closed to Japan and Western Europe is beginning to show fears that the Japanese will turn to their markets as a substitute. In terms of Japanese overseas economic needs, there is a point beyond which the Japanese will not be able to tolerate this denial of markets. We thus cannot draw too fine a line between Japanese economic and military ambitions. Mr. Hahm also noted that even though it is true that there is no evidence of resurgent Japanese militarism now, the Japanese national character is capable of changing overnight. Mr. Hahm reiterated that the Chinese can live with U.S. military involvement in South Korea, but would find a Japanese presence intolerable.

Even Japan would find the disappearance of the U.S. military presence in South Korea to its disadvantage, Mr. Hahm said. Japan would fear that in the absence of the U.S. military presence there the Chinese and the Russians would take advantage of their geo-political advantage and move down the Korean peninsula. Mr. Hahm explained that with Japan suffering the disadvantage of being separated from the peninsula by a sizable stretch of water, it must establish a presence on the Korean peninsula in order to offset the threat posed by China and the Soviet Union which can move into the peninsula over a continuous land bridge. The Japanese thus would like to see the U.S. stay in South Korea as a shield against China and the Soviet Union. Japan has told the South Korean Government that any further reduction of U.S. military presence in South Korea would leave Japan exposed.

At the same time it is essential that Korea not align itself with any of the three powers in order to maintain stability in the area, Mr. Hahm contended, but in the present context the maintenance of the non-aligned stance depends on the U.S. presence.

Mr. Hahm commented that it would take only one big depression or recession for Japan to go militaristic. He expressed the hope that Japan would be successful in finding a solution to its economic problems without going to extremes but said the Korean attitude was one of caution and skepticism.

Current Misunderstanding of the Nixon Doctrine and U.S. China Policy

General Haig said he found a great deal of truth in Mr. Hahm’s exposition of the problem. However, he thought that it contained some underlying assumptions that fail to take into account President Nixon’s policies. Specifically, General Haig thought Mr. Hahm misunderstood the Nixon Doctrine and the relationship of President Nixon’s China initiative to it.

As regards the Nixon Doctrine, General Haig stressed the President was not looking for a formula to disengage but rather a way to [Page 275]stay engaged in a manner that took account of changes in the international scene and in the U.S. He noted that almost any U.S. president would have been faced with the same problem. General Haig underlined the fact that the U.S. is a Pacific power and that the President’s own record clearly reflects this concern. He admitted that there are forces in the U.S. pulling for U.S. disengagement abroad, but said emphatically that this was not the policy of this administration. The U.S. definitely wants to avoid situations that would leave power vacuums. Another basic principle in this regard is that U.S. commitments proceed from U.S. interests, not vice versa. Given the continuing existence of these interests, U.S. commitments will continue to stand firm.

Recent Contacts Between North and South Korea

But, General Haig wanted to know, what was Mr. Hahm’s view of Seoul’s recently initialed contacts with Pyongyang? Mr. Hahm said that his government hoped that Pyongyang would tone down its rhetoric against the South Korean Government. Mr. Hahm noted that in this regard South Korea may now be receiving some indirect assistance from Peking. Tad Szulc of the New York Times had mentioned to him the previous evening that he had heard recently that Chou had gone to Pyongyang between July 11–15. This could be interpreted, Mr. Hahm said, as an indication that Peking was pressing Pyongyang to make its own actions more consistent with Peking’s changing attitudes toward the U.S.

General Haig wondered what might come out of the contacts between North and South Korean Red Cross representatives. Mr. Hahm, explaining the rationale of Seoul’s initiative, said that President Park recognized that his de facto recognition of North Korea implicit in certain of his actions and statements in the past year was unpopular in South Korea: it perpetuated the division between North and South rather than reunifying them. Therefore, President Park was approaching Pyongyang on the question of divided families.

South Korean Troop Withdrawal from Vietnam

General Haig asked Mr. Hahm his views on the Vietnam situation. Mr. Hahm said that his government had misjudged the Vietnamese. South Korea had assumed the South Vietnamese would fight the threat of a Communist take over as fiercely as they had in the early 1950s. President Park is now disenchanted with his country’s involvement in Vietnam. Korea became involved in large part to satisfy its obligation to the U.S. Now, however, South Korea finds itself on the receiving end of much criticism from abroad—its troops’ behavior in South Vietnam has given rise to an international image of Korea as bloodthirsty. Mr. Hahm said that he himself had been advising President Park to get out of Vietnam.

General Haig responded that we must confront the fact that we are involved in Vietnam. What we do therefore must be done responsibly [Page 276]and be done in the full light of the realities of the security situation in Vietnam. He thought that Korea should not take over seriously criticism of what it was doing in Vietnam. Much more important, he said, was that we leave Vietnam in a way that South Vietnamese forces will be able to defend the country. This meant that South Korea should plan on leaving its forces there for at least the coming year. Withdrawing precipitously would raise the same danger of instability in Indochina that Mr. Hahm wanted so much to avoid in the Korean peninsula.

Mr. Hahm objected that South Korea has a serious problem domestically as well—it must not be the last to leave Vietnam, or even worse, it must not be kicked out of South Vietnam. Also, if North Vietnam pulls another Tet offensive because U.S. troops have been down to such a low level, the remaining South Korean forces could be left in an impossible position. General Haig said that he does not believe that Hanoi retains the capability to stage another Tet offensive. He thought the greater danger would be instability in Indochina resulting from a vacuum created by too rapid a troop withdrawal. He said that South Korea need not fear a complete U.S. withdrawal that would leave it holding the bag. The U.S. will not withdraw before the other side satisfies certain conditions. On the other hand, General Haig said, he thought that if South Korea precipitously pulls its forces out, thereby undercutting the Nixon Doctrine’s reliance on Asian nations’ defending themselves, this action would bring even greater criticism on South Korea.

Mr. Hahm pointed out that the signals South Korea had been getting from the State Department and the Government of Vietnam were almost tantamount to an invitation for the Koreans to withdraw. President Thieu didn’t even bother to send President Park a letter when Korea informed South Vietnam of its plans to make its first withdrawals. From all of this, Seoul has gotten the feeling that the U.S. attitude was one of “if Korea wants to get out, then let it go.” General Haig responded that he did not believe that President Thieu wants South Korea to leave, and again said that he did not think South Korea should attach undue importance to the foreign criticism which Mr. Hahm had mentioned.

Mr. Hahm said that he had received the impression during his last visit to the U.S. that the South Korean military presence was not needed. General Haig responded that he firmly believed that Korean troops are needed and said that he was very much concerned over the potential results of an early withdrawal of South Korean troops, particularly the impact on the Nixon Doctrine. General Haig commented that we have all come too far and have invested too much in Indochina to give up the ghost now. Mr. Hahm returned to his dismay over the U.S. reaction to Seoul’s notification on its plans to withdraw the first increment of troops. General Haig countered that this was not the reaction of President Nixon, who accorded the highest priority to the realities of the security situation. Mr. Hahm noted in passing that the withdrawal target for South Korean [Page 277]troops which he had had in mind was next May. General Haig said that he thought that it would be well if he discussed this matter further with John Holdridge when he saw him later today.

The meeting ended after a further exchange of pleasantries.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 542, Country Files, Far East, Korea, Vol. IV, 1 Jan–31 Dec 1971. Secret. The meeting was held at the White House.
  2. Brackets are in the original.