11. Briefing for Director of Central Intelligence Helms for a National Security Council Meeting1

The Situation in North Korea

The North Korean shootdown of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over international waters has all the earmarks of a deliberate attempt by Pyongyang to revive a high level of tension with the United States.
Kim Il-song has always held a militant viewpoint on the question of Communist struggle against the United States. He has long insisted—to the point of strained relations with Moscow and Peking—on the importance of the smaller countries in the world Communist movement.
Qualified observers in recent years have perceived in Kim an extreme and growing egotism, expressed in a craving for self-assertion and the limelight, and a proclivity toward wishful thinking.
By incidents such as this latest one, Kim effectively upstages Moscow and Peking, and scores points for his personal and nationalist self-assertion. He also makes an effective contrast between North Korean boldness and the caution of Peking and Moscow in challenging the power of the United States. He derives assurance, however, from the fact that North Korea—unlike North Vietnam—has mutual defense treaties with both the USSR and Communist China (signed in July 1961).
A major theme of North Korean propaganda, particularly since the Pueblo incident, is that a determined small nation can defeat a “mighty imperialist.”
In light of the Pueblo experience, Kim probably saw the April 15 attack as a relatively low-risk opportunity to reopen a propaganda [Page 24] campaign against “U.S. aggressive designs,” and to further erode the credibility of U.S. activities in the area.
The attack also enables the hard line North Korean leadership to focus domestic attention on this challenge to U.S. power rather than on their frustrating inability to launch a so-called “people’s war” in the South, or to keep pace with the economic progress of South Korea.
The North Koreans may have felt compelled to make up for the loss of face they suffered in March when they were unable to disrupt or deter the joint U.S.-South Korean “Focus Retina” military exercise.
Coincident with this operation, North Korea began a series of unprovoked harassments in the Demilitarized Zone, and also assumed a belligerent posture in blocking routine boundary-marker replacement actions by the United Nations Command forces in the DMZ.
Within hours after the destruction of the reconnaissance aircraft, Pyongyang called for a meeting of the Military Armistice Commission at Panmunjom on Friday, April 18.

Their aim will be to portray North Korea as the aggrieved party, offer a conference table to reduce the likelihood of U.S. retaliation, and use the meeting as a propaganda forum to expand on their charges of U.S. “aggression.”

[3 paragraphs (19 lines) not declassified]


Pyongyang Radio, however, continues to claim that the U.S. plane was destroyed when it entered North Korean air space.

1. The North Koreans have never stated publicly what they conceive their air space to be, and in any event they are probably confident that in the aftermath of the Pueblo incident, a considerable body of world opinion will be receptive to their claim.

North Korean Military Status

We have detected only very limited North Korean military reaction since the shootdown.
A few of their IL–28 jet light bombers, concentrated in the extreme northwest, may be on strip alert, and there are tentative indications that some air defense units also went on alert shortly after the incident.
We have nothing to indicate any change in the status of North Korean ground forces, and there is no indication that North Korean aircraft have reacted to U.S. aircraft engaged in search and rescue operations.
Despite the consistently aggressive attitude of Pyongyang, there have been very few incidents involving U.S. forces that approached or surpassed the gravity of this one.
Other than the seizure of the Pueblo, the only such incident was one on April 28, 1965, when North Korean fighters attacked but failed to shoot down a U.S. RB–47 reconnaissance plane at a point about 50 miles off North Korea over the Sea of Japan.
There have, of course, been increasingly severe operations against South Korea—for example,—the attempt to assassinate President Pak in an attack directed at the Presidential Palace in Seoul the day before the seizure of the Pueblo;—the protracted incursion by 120 North Korean commandos landed on the East Coast last November;—and the raid by seaborne commandos a month ago on a South Korean police station in an east coast port.
The Soviets had some ships in the vicinity of the shootdown which have been engaging in search operations, and at least two TU–16 medium bombers reconnoitered the general area yesterday.

Chronology of North Korean Incidents

16 March 1969 Eight North Korean seaborne commandos attacked a South Korean police station on the east coast, 55 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone.
3 Nov 1968 Some 120 seaborne North Korean commandos infiltrated South Korea’s central east coast in the neighborhood of Ulchin, inflicting considerable civilian and military casualties before being neutralized.
23 Jan 1968 North Korean patrol ships seized the USS Pueblo in international waters off North Korea’s east coast.
22 Jan 1968 A thirty-one man North Korean guerrilla team infiltrated the Demilitarized Zone and attempted to attack the South Korean presidential residence and assassinate President Pak Chong-hui.
28 April 1965 North Korean fighter aircraft attacked, but failed to shoot down, a US RB–47 reconnaissance aircraft at a point some 50 nautical miles from the North Korean coast over the Sea of Japan.

In addition to the above incidents, Pyongyang has sustained a generally high level of tension along the Demilitarized Zone beginning in late 1966. North Korean military personnel have carried out vigorous probing and harassing activity against United Nations Command forces including sabotage of UN military installations, attacks on routine US and South Korean patrols south of the Military Demarcation line, and in late 1967 the derailment of two South Korean trains south of the Demilitarized Zone.

The Military Balance

I. North Korea’s armed forces are capable of defending the country against a South Korean attack, and could go on the offensive with outside logistics support. North Korea uses a very large proportion of its manpower and money to maintain and improve its military, and is [Page 26] receiving modern military equipment from the USSR. North Korea’s military establishment is impressive for so small a country, and the North Korean leadership apparently intends to keep it that way.

It is not easy to strike a balance between the military establishments of North and South Korea, especially since the information on North Korea is deficient. The balance of strength probably remains about even, with outside assistance the decisive factor.
The North Korean army is smaller than South Korea’s—an estimated 350,000 men to nearly 600,000—but it has superior firepower and strong defensive positions along the Demilitarized Zone.
  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Executive Registry Files, Job 80–R01284A, K–3, Korea, January–December 1969. Top Secret; Codeword.