14. Intelligence Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1

Communist Reactions to Certain US Actions

The North Korean attack on the US EC–121 aircraft, like the seizure of the Pueblo, appears to have been a unilateral action taken without advance notice to either Moscow or Peking.2 This state of affairs will condition Soviet and Chinese Communist attitudes and reactions to US courses of action in this situation as it did in the Pueblo crisis. There is one major difference between these two incidents, however, that complicates the problem of developing effective US responses that would produce the desired impact on North Korea and its Communist neighbors. In contrast to the Pueblo affair, which contained elements susceptible to negotiation, the present situation does not lend itself to bargaining or exchange. Moreover, the possible objectives of US actions, apart from straightforward retaliation, involve the principles of maintaining the right to use international airspace and deterrence against future such hostilities. Neither principle is particularly applicable to the North Korean problem particularly in terms of securing specific responses by Pyongyang.
The problem of developing meaningful and effective US courses of action is also complicated by the assumptions and motivations underlying North Korea’s action. The Kim Il-sung regime almost certainly planned this move in advance calculating that the potential advantages in taking this risk far outweighed the dangers of possible US military reprisals. This judgment, and North Korea’s evaluation of future US initiatives, probably are strongly influenced by the Korean’s interpretation of the US response to the seizure of the Pueblo. Kim Il-sung evidently has persuaded himself that the US is overextended in Vietnam and elsewhere and that North Korea therefore can engage in such deliberate acts of defiance with relative impunity. The North Koreans probably [Page 33]made the decision to attack the reconnaissance aircraft on the assumption that there would either be no US military response or at the most only a limited one, in the nature of a one-time retaliatory action.
We believe that two main factors contributed to North Korea’s complacent appraisal of risks. Kim Il-sung’s style of rule has long been characterized by a willingness to accept risks and by a strong reliance on bluff and intimidation. He has taken pride in his militant “revolutionary” stance and has ridiculed Peking and Moscow for their caution in dealing with US power. A major theme of North Korean propaganda, particularly since the Pueblo incident, is that a determined small nation can defeat a “mighty imperialist.” A more specific motivation for the shootdown probably resides in Kim Il-sung’s desire to offset the failure of his attempts over the past two years to launch a so-called “people’s war” in the South and to undermine and disrupt the South Korean government and economy. Kim, moreover, evidently believes his long-term ambitions regarding South Korea require a high level of tension with the US. Periodic provocations, he hopes, will contribute to the disillusionment of the American public with overseas burdens and bring about a reduction and eventual withdrawal of US forces from South Korea.
In view of these North Korean assumptions and ambitions, it is doubtful that any of the US courses of action considered below would have any decisive or lasting effects, either in achieving stated US objectives or in inducing Pyongyang to modify its long-term policies. Embassy Seoul has suggested that if the US response takes the form of a military threat or even a limited strike, “the benefits to North Korea will be manifold.” A very tough populace will be spurred to greater feats of production and sacrifice, and the disputes within the North Korean leadership that have been hinted at in recent pronouncements may be stilled in the face of tangible external pressure. Such gains for the regime, in the Embassy’s judgment, would outweigh the physical losses anticipated from a limited US retaliatory strike.
Show of force: The North Koreans probably would view actions such as demonstrative air and naval maneuvers in proximity to North Korea essentially as a repetition of the US response to the Pueblo seizure. They would be inclined to interpret such demonstrations as indicating US unwillingness to resort to any direct application of force that might carry high risks of a resumption of major hostilities. The North Koreans would attempt to extract maximum propaganda advantage from a show of force in the Military Armistice Commission forum and elsewhere. It is unlikely, however, that they would feel compelled to challenge this US air and naval presence by direct air or surface action.
Military actions not involving combat probably would not deter the North Koreans from increasing harassment and other forms of [Page 34]pressure in the Demilitarized Zone area. In fact, they might view an intensification of such pressure as an effective means of stimulating international concern over the danger of major hostilities, thus bringing heavy pressure to bear on the US to withdraw the show of force. We believe that there is little prospect that this course of action would induce the North Koreans to apologize publicly for the shootdown or undertake to avoid such actions in the future.

[Omitted here is discussion of other military options.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 540, Country Files, Far East, Korea, Vol. I, to 9–69. Top Secret; Sensitive. Prepared in the Office of Current Intelligence of the Directorate of Intelligence, in coordination with the Office of National Estimates and the Office of Strategic Research.
  2. On April 16, Hughes sent Intelligence Note No. 274 on North Korean motives in downing the EC–121 to Rogers. Hughes stated, “It is probably more than coincidence that the downing occurred on Kim Il-song’s 57th birthday.” Hughes suggested that “the most likely North Korean motivation, then, is self gratification and increased prestige for Kim Il-song at the expense of the United States following a plan based on Pyongyang’s Pueblo experience.” (Ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 31–1 KOR N–US)