247. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting, Washington, December 4, 1973, 10:40 a.m.–12:02 p.m.1 2


December 4, 1973

Time and Place: 10:40 a.m. - 12:02 p.m., White House Situation Room

Subject: North Korea


  • Chairman: William R. Smyser
  • State: Ambassador Habib
  • Richard Sneider
  • Donald Ranard
  • Wesley Kriebal
  • Edward Kelley
  • Chip Roe
  • Elizabeth G. Verville
  • Defense: Colonel Ralph E. Adams
  • Capt. James Baker
  • Robert L. Yandergrift
  • CIA James Graham
  • NSC Jack Froebe
  • Richard Solomon
  • Col. Don Stukel
  • William Hyland
  • Maj. Robert McFarlane
  • Jim Barnum


It was agreed that:

... the ferry boat scheduled to leave on December 5 depart as usual but that a final decision be rendered by Secretary Kissinger;

... a joint State, Defense, NSC cable be sent Embassy Seoul immediately informing them of our view of the situation, instructing the Embassy to call for a meeting of the Military Armistice Commission as soon as possible, and that the ROK be urged to open the “hot-line” with Pyongyang;

... the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China will be informed of our concern and the steps we are taking to prevent an incident;

... State will inform the Japanese of the situation and what we are doing;

... the leadership of both Houses of Congress be informed immediately of the situation and what steps are being taken by the US.

[Page 2]

1. Organization and Purpose

Mr. Smyser opened the meeting with the explanation that the meeting had been called in order to formulate a consensus on what our policy should be in regard to North Korea’s demands. If there was no agreement on what we should do, the issues would be clarified and justified and then forwarded for decision at a higher level. Mr. Smyser expressed the hope that two papers would emerge from the meeting: (1) a memorandum to Secretary Kissinger defining the issues and options; and (2) a cable to Embassy Seoul, giving our views of the situation and what steps ought to be taken. Mr. Smyser also identified five issues to be addressed: (1) how to proceed with the regular supply convoys; (2) how to talk to the North Koreans (through the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) or “hot-line”); (3) how to-tell the Soviets and Chinese of our concern; (4) how the situation relates to the UN Command (UNC); and (5) what do we do about the Japanese and the Congress.

2. CIA View of the Current Situation

Mr. Graham gave a brief run-down on the current situation, adding little to what was already known. The ferry that was scheduled to leave for one of the islands today turned back because of bad weather. The North Korean Navy continues to patrol along what is termed the Northern Limit Line. North Korean Army units appear to be on alert, and there is some evidence that reserve forces are also on alert, but this is uncertain. The joint service exercises have not begun. This is only the second time that this has not happened, and there is no clear explanation for this. On the political front, the North Koreans have made no further claims beyond jurisdiction over the islands. The South Koreans still plan to re-supply the islands. Their naval units are to escort the supply convoys and have orders to fire only if fired upon. There are no installations on any of the islands, and no US personnel. [text not declassified]

It was Mr. Graham’s opinion that North Korea’s reasons for provoking the issue at this time are basically threefold: (1) a method to get the UNC phased out; (2) to unsettle the ROK; and (3) to weaken South Korea’s confidence in the US at the time when the Korean question is about to come up before the United Nations. Mr. Graham explained that this assessment is only conjecture, but that the timing in relation to the UN is just too close to be coincidental.

3. Status of the South Korean Ships

Mr. Froebe reported from a just-concluded telephone conversation with the UN Command that a ferry is scheduled to depart at 0900 (Seoul time) on [Page 3] December 5. It will not be escorted. Three ROK vessels will be maneuvering off the coast. The ROK Air Force is also on strip alert. The departure of the next re-supply convoy to Paengnyong-do is uncertain; cover plans are now being developed.

4. The Military Situation

Colonel Adams of Defense reported that there is a heavy concentration of North Korean troops near Saigon-ni conducting exercises. Traditionally, these exercises maneuver from the west toward the east. Defense is currently working up the North Korean order of battle in the area, and will have a rundown by the afternoon of 4 December. No US vessels are in the area.

5. The Legal Situation

Mrs. Verville of State reported that it is State’s preliminary view that North Korea’s claim that the five islands fall within its territorial waters is not legally valid. Under Article 15 of the Armistice Agreement, North Korean jurisdiction over contiguous waters applies only to the mainland—not the islands. State prefers not to get into the argument over territorial waters as this opens a whole Pandora’s Box of issues. State will draw up a text to be used as legal justification.

6. Discussion of the Actions to be Taken

A lengthy discussion followed regarding what actions the US might take in response to North Korea’s “challenge” and what North Korea and the ROK might do in response to the actions discussed. There was no agreement as to whether North Korea will or will not attempt to seize the ferry boat on the morning of December 5. There are strong arguments that the North Koreans want an incident and thus will try something, and strong arguments that Pyongyang will do nothing. A discussion of whether it would be in our interest to escalate the matter ended with the agreement that it would not be at this time. There was considerable discussion over the advisability of requesting that the ferry postpone its voyage on the 5th of December; it was decided to leave the decision to Secretary Kissinger. It was Ambassador Habib’s view that nothing could be done since the ship was due to leave in less than eight hours and the South Koreans probably would not accede to our request, anyway.

On the diplomatic questions, there was a great deal of discussion on whether to inform the Soviet Union and Peking of our concern, whether we should urge the ROK to communicate it’s concerns to Pyongyang over [Page 4] the “hot-line”, and whether a meeting of the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) should be called. It was decided that Moscow and Peking should be informed of our concern, but in a low-key manner. Embassy Seoul would be instructed to urge South Korea to open the “hot-line”.

7. Informing our Allies and Congress

It was decided that State would inform the Japanese of our concern over the situation and what we are doing to prevent an incident. It was also decided that the leaders of Congress should be told immediately of the gravity of the situation. The method for informing the leaders is to be determined later. Congressional leaders will be informed of our demarches to the Russians and Chinese on an “if asked only” basis.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, NSC Staff for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Convenience Files, Box 24, WSAG Working Group, Dec. 4, 1973[Korea]. Top Secret; Nodis. The minutes were attached to a covering memorandum, December 5, from Davis to Kissinger, explaining that the WSAG met “to discuss North Korea’s demand that UN Command naval and merchant ships obtain prior permission to navigate the waters contiguous to five UNC-controlled islands off the west coast of Korea.” On December 22, Scowcroft approved draft State-Defense cables to the Embassy in Seoul giving guidance for the upcoming Military Armistice Commission meeting and commenting on a South Korean memorandum on the island dispute. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 544, Country Files, Far East, Korea, Volume 7, November 1973–)
  2. A WSAG meeting considered North Korean maritime demands.