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Remembering 31 Americans and lessons learned or not
I have convinced my friend and colleague Richard Lawless to contribute this essay to AEIdeas to commemorate the 50th anniversary this week of the North Korean shootdown of an unarmed US recon aircraft, an attack that killed 31 US crewmen. Nixon and Kissinger chose to do nothing — a fateful inaction that in my honest opinion helped to set on course the events we now have to contend with in the never ending North Korea crisis.
Mr. Lawless is one of the greats — a longtime USG Korea hand. One of the few cool American heads at the 6 Party talks back in the day. He will not tell you this, but he was inter alia the officer assigned to shut down the South Korean nuclear weapons program in the 1970s — and he did.
This past week South Korea’s first F-35 fighters arrived in that nation to bolster its defense posture, perhaps coincident with the arrival in Washington of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in for meetings with President Trump. Reacting quickly to the arrival of the new fighter aircraft, if not the Moon visit to meet with President Trump, North Korea delivered a stream of threats against all its perceived enemies. Branding the arrival of the two jets a “hostile act that escalates military tension on the peninsula,” Pyongyang warned that “South Korea should ponder the catastrophic results of this stealth fighter introduction.”
Recent history has cautioned us to take North Korean threats seriously as such saber rattling is often a prelude to armed provocations that risk escalation to war. In the wake of the failed Hanoi summit meeting, the US-led international coalition is strengthening the economic sanctions program directed at North Korea. Also, this past week South Korean President Moon Jae-in departed Washington DC a disappointed man when President Trump declined Moon’s proposal that South Korea begin a reengagement process that would include the US backing off the current sanctions regime. In this situation, we should be prepared for the real possibility that a frustrated Kim Jung-un will lash out with a deadly military provocation.
Fifty years ago this week, in the early morning hours of April 15, 1969, thirty-one US Navy and Marine airmen boarded their unarmed EC-121 electronic surveillance aircraft, climbed into the clear skies over Atsugi, Japan and flew west over the Sea of Japan. They were on a routine reconnaissance mission over international waters, a flight that had been performed many times before, over the same track. Six hours into their flight they and their aircraft, call sign “Deep Sea 129,” were blown out of the sky by a pair of North Korean MIG fighters which had been dispatched to destroy this aircraft.
Not coincidentally, it was the 57th birthday of North Korean dictator-for-life Kim Il-sung. His regime had decided it was a great day to mount yet another armed and deadly attack against the United States.
This deadly provocation, coming fast on the heels of the North Korean attack and capture of the USS Pueblo and its crew a year before, brought North Korea again to attention of the president of the United States as American crisis planners struggled to cope. In the Pentagon, a decision-making process was undertaken that considered a range of retaliatory options, including both conventional and nuclear strikes on North Korea.
In the end, President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger elected to do nothing. The North Koreans once again concluded that they could literally get away with murder and would not be held to account. The EC-121 incident itself is often overlooked in the greater scheme of the multi-administration attempts at “nuclear engagement” with Pyongyang. But the same regime that dispatched the MIG interceptors that April day fifty years ago remains in place today as a negotiating partner, only now it is a de facto nuclear weapons state. The EC-121 shootdown is therefore instructive and relevant, if not to the memory of thirty-one dead US servicemen, then certainly to our understanding of the mentality that frames the way North Korea makes its decisions today.
To recap the events of that shootdown, our US Navy EC-121M Warning Star aircraft, based at Atsugi, belonged to US Navy Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One. Its crew was tasked to collect such signals intelligence as could be gleaned from the Far Eastern Soviet Union and North Korea. These aircraft flew a standard mission route over the Sea of Japan, and some two hundred missions had been completed without incident in the months leading up to the North Korean attack. Great care was taken to fly a mission track that never brought the aircraft closer than 50 miles from the North Korean coast.
On that day, the North Korean MIG’s disregarded the nation’s 12-mile territorial limit, and were directed by ground controllers to range out more than 60 miles to mount their attack on the Warning Star. Despite a history of North Korean provocations, on that day US planners simply assumed that the North Koreans would comply with international law and respect norms of conduct. Unfortunately, US military planners disregarded repeated North Korean warnings that Pyongyang would take action against US aircraft wherever they could be found.
In Pyongyang today, this same level of singled-minded determination manifest in the April 1969 act-of-war shootdown remains the order of the day. Neither logic nor rational thought need be involved. We should recognize that nuclear, other WMD, conventional weapons, and ballistic missile delivery programs are now in the hands of the North Koreans. These capabilities are perceived by the Pyongyang regime as irreplaceable elements critical to the sustainment of that regime. None will be given up willingly.
The Trump administration’s determination to navigate these same waters with North Korea is laudable. But the prospect of future North Korean provocations designed to teach the United States a lesson should never be discounted. This will be particularly true if the current North Korean ruler becomes frustrated with a negotiating process that is not delivering the results that regime requires. From past experience, the North Koreans may elect to mount a provocation, be that act directed at the United States, Japan or South Korea.
When the North Koreans do act, they will do so with the calculated expectation that the United States will rush to placate Pyongyang and offer concessions. In the event of such a new North Korean armed provocation the United States should accommodate Kim Il-sung’s grandson by delivering a swift and decisive response. The US Administration and its military planners would do best to prepare for such an eventuality.
Richard Lawless most recently served as the Pentagon’s Deputy Under Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs under Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates (2002-2007) responsible for defense policy planning and execution in the greater Asian region. In that capacity he also served as the deputy head of the US delegation to the Six Party Talks with North Korea during the Bush ’43 Administration. A former CIA career officer, Lawless served multiple tours in South Korea and Japan and specialized in nuclear proliferation and regional security issues. He is currently writing a book on the EC-121 incident.
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