289. Memorandum of Conversation, Washington, September 15, 1976, 2:30 p.m.1 2




  • Brent Scowcroft
  • Ambassador Richard Sneider
  • William Gleysteen

DATE AND TIME: September 15, 1976; 2:30 p. m.
SUBJECT: August 18 Incident at Panmunjom; U.S.-Korean Relations

General Scowcroft concurred with Ambassador Sneider’s view that the August 18 incident at Panmunjom had come out better than expected — and apparently to our net advantage. Sneider thought it would have a beneficial effect in the U.N. and Scowcroft noted the benefit in the United States, especially in Congress, though the relief might prove temporary.

Scowcroft asked why President Park, after his cautious initial reaction to the August 18 incident, ended up advocating such belligerent measures toward North Korea. Park’s toughness seemed to grow as his fears subsided in the face of our buildup and North Korea’s soft reaction. Sneider suggested a number of possible reasons for the switch. Perhaps Park was disappointed that the North Koreans had not offered resistance to the tree-cutting operation which would have allowed his special forces to inflict some vengeance. (Despite instructions to the contrary, the ROK forces for the tree-cutting may have been armed.) He explained that Park had a parochial, Israeli complex stemming in part from the protection we have accorded to Korea for so long — Park tends to ignore or discount the costs that we have to calculate in deciding how to react to North Korean provocations. Park may also have been influenced by his Generals who were egging him on. In any event, he and many other Koreans failed to focus on the fact that we had provided full support to them and had for the first time successfully forced the North Koreans to back down.

Sneider concluded that our own handling of the incident had been correct, including the carefully modulated military response. Scowcroft agreed.

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While emphasizing that he was not prepared to predict any pattern of North Korean behavior, Sneider suggested that we not rule out the possibility of further soft moves by Pyongyang in a kind of “peace offensive.” The North Koreans knew that they had overplayed their hand and they might now shift to a new tack.

Asked what concerned him about the future, Sneider said that the human rights issue probably posed the most immediate difficulty but over the longer term he was most concerned about Park’s emotionally-charged drive to seek self-sufficiency and self-reliance through a program of nuclear weapons and missile development. Although there was no immediate need for further action on our part, he felt that within about six months we should start confronting Park on this matter, not only because of direct problems in South Korea but also because North Korea might eventually try to go the same route. Sneider said Park was guilty of sloppy thinking in believing that he could somehow obtain greater security by these policies; yet, given U.S. attitudes, one had to admit that South Koreans had some reason for their concern over their future security. Sneider suggested that we needed more regularity in our relations with the ROK and less emphasis on military matters.

Sneider mentioned his desire to get the U.S. company off the DMZ, granting that it was something we should not consider until after our elections. He explained that the company was excessively exposed and could be a trigger. Scowcroft said he didn’t like the idea of removing the company and felt that the exposed quality of this particular deployment was why it was valuable. Sneider agreed there was merit to this view but thought it would be better for us to pull the unit out as an initiative rather than to retreat under domestic pressure. Gleysteen asked what the South Korean response would be and Sneider replied that they were always opposed to all change but would probably take the matter in stride. Scowcroft emphasized his concern about an inclination within certain parts of the government to go ahead with small piecemeal moves which individually had little significance but cumulatively had the net effect of eroding our military presence in East Asia. He said he did not like this tendency and thought we should resist it.

Gleysteen raised the matter of Defense’s desire to prepare the way for withdrawal of the nuclear-capable Sargeant missile battalion. He said Defense had a Presidential approval to withdraw the battalion in mid-September but had decided to extend it for 90 days because of the Panmunjom incident. They could not, however, extend it beyond 90 days because [Page 3] of budgetary considerations and the unsupportability of Sargeant units. Defense wanted to know how they should proceed in preparing the press for the withdrawal. Scowcroft said that they should postpone a decision on press handling until later in November.

Gleysteen asked Sneider if he were satisfied that there could not be a repetition of the August 18 incident. He pointed out that in the WSAG meetings the JCS representative had never been able to explain why more precautions had not been taken on August 18. Sneider agreed that this was a serious problem and that as a result of his own checking he was convinced there were inadequate command and control procedures, especially in the JSA. He had spoken to Stilwell about it but thought it best to focus his efforts on General Vessey who would be taking over in October. Sneider said he would be talking to Vessey himself but would also appreciate Scowcroft’s mentioning it as well. Scowcroft agreed to do so.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for East Asia and the Pacific, Box 10, Korea (19). Secret; Sensitive. Gleysteen sent the memorandum of conversation to Scowcroft under a covering memorandum, September 17, recommending his approval, which Scowcroft initialed. The talking points that Gleysteen prepared for Scowcroft, September 14, are ibid.
  2. Scowcroft, Sneider, and Gleysteen discussed U.S. policy toward Korea.