New Realities, Old Fears: Escalation on the Korean Peninsula

Recent Features

Features | Diplomacy

New Realities, Old Fears: Escalation on the Korean Peninsula

When tensions rise, history illuminates U.S. and ROK fears of entrapment and abandonment.

New Realities, Old Fears: Escalation on the Korean Peninsula
Credit: The White House

Alliance tensions over abandonment and entrapment fears come sharply into focus at times of conflict escalation or the possibility of escalation. Therefore, understanding escalation dynamics and the processes for de-escalation and the restoration of deterrence is an important aspect of U.S.-ROK alliance management. The DPRK’s recent nuclear test, SLBM ejection tests, and advancements in other asymmetric capabilities such as cyber-warfare make escalation management more complicated and difficult for the alliance.

Before examining escalation problems in the current context of the DPRK’s growing asymmetric threats, it is helpful to understand the historical lessons of past escalation episodes and how they affected fears of abandonment and entrapment over time.

Historical Backdrop

U.S. concern at being entrapped by South Korean actions predates the alliance itself. On August 24, 1948, nine days after the formal establishment of the ROK and the end of the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), both sides signed the “Executive Agreement Concerning Interim Military and Security Matters during the Transitional Period“ whereby the ROK government would gradually assume command of their security forces. In the meantime, as American troops withdrew from South Korea, the U.S. “retained operational control of the Korean forces,” and continued “to train and equip the Constabulary and the Coast Guard.” Washington intended to achieve a smooth transfer of authority and to avoid any instability that could trigger a conflict, which helps explain why the U.S. refused to supply President Rhee Syngman with aircraft or tanks prior to the Korean War. U.S. strategists viewed Rhee as impetuous and believed that if supplied with heavy weaponry, he would make good on his repeated public statements to “march north” and unite the peninsula, touching off a conflict that the U.S. might be compelled to join.

On July 14, 1950, soon after the outbreak of the Korean War, Rhee agreed to transfer the command authority or “operational command” of South Korea’s armed forces to General MacArthur, the Supreme Commander, United Nations Forces. The so-called Taejŏn Agreement is best explained by the exigencies of war and the need for unity of command in wartime. However, the retention of U.S. “operational control” (OPCON) over ROK forces codified in the November 17, 1954 “Agreed Minute” to the U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty, contained additional implications. The U.S. retained the ability to control just how far the South Koreans could go in responding to North Korean provocations. In fact, it was understood at the time that this enormous concession of sovereignty was the price the ROK had to pay for the Defense Treaty and retention of U.S. forces on South Korean soil.

U.S. Concerns

Although successive South Korean leaders accepted this concession of sovereignty in order to preserve the U.S. security commitment, they nonetheless frequently attempted to preserve a certain degree of autonomy for domestic political purposes. As a result, the U.S. recurrently dealt with instances where South Korean presidents or military officers withdrew or threatened to withdraw some units from the United Nations Command (UNC) and later the Combined Forces Command (CFC). Moreover, the ROK on occasion created special units outside of the alliance OPCON structure, as explained below. In each case, one of the main U.S. concerns was how to regain control and prevent further instability on the peninsula. The fear was that the North Korea might attempt to exploit such situations, and without operational control, the U.S. might not be to prevent escalation.

In July 1952, while the ROK military remained under the “operational command” of the UN commander, Rhee ordered the ROK Army Chief of Staff, General Yi Chong-ch’an to remove two combat divisions from the frontline and deploy them to Pusan. Rhee hoped that the action would pressure the opposition in the wartime National Assembly, assure the amendment of the electoral process, and secure his reelection as president. Yi, who had the support of UNC Commander, General Mark W. Clark, refused Rhee’s order and was forced into retirement.

In the wake of this event, Rhee created a new military police unit within the Department of National Defense, not within the Army, in order to “circumvent the Taejon Agreement,” which had put the entire ROK Army under UN Command. The new military police unit was commanded by the Joint Military Provost Marshal (JMPM), a civilian minister answerable only to Rhee himself, and had jurisdiction over all military branches and civilians. Nevertheless, its influence was restrained by pressure from the UNC commander and the resentment of the regular ROK military forces. Although Rhee threatened to order unilateral military action by his forces in 1953 and 1954, no such move was taken. Still, the U.S. was sufficiently concerned about such a possibility that “American representatives directly counseled senior Korean military commanders against it, in accordance with U.S. policy directives,” namely NSC 167.

Following the May 16, 1961 military coup, a similar dynamic played out between then UNC Commander, Gen. Carter B. Magruder, and coup leaders, Park Chŏng-hŭi and Kim Chong-p’il. In a formerly classified diplomatic cable from Gen. Magruder to Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Magruder wrote that the coup leaders sought assurances that “I would not use my operational control in an attempt to break the revolution.” Magruder responded to them that his “mission was to defend Korea, not determine what kind of government Korea had,” and therefore “that as long as the revolutionary government took no action that would prejudice the defense of [South] Korea they had nothing to fear from me.” Such actions included withdrawing troops assigned in forward areas, relieving and appointing senior commanders without his consent, and organizing officers loyal to the coup group instead of their own commanders, thus weakening the authority and overall cohesion of the ROK military.

Confident in Magruder’s intentions not to disrupt their revolutionary objectives, Park and Kim agreed to return operational control of all ROK forces to the UNC commander and to reestablish consultation on high-ranking military assignments. Nevertheless, like Rhee before him, Park created the Capital Garrison Command (later renamed the Capital Defense Command). The Command was a part of the South Korean national defense forces, which in theory was meant to guard the capital if North Korea were to attack. Yet its actual (or additional) purpose was as a countercoup unit against regime opponents.

Another telling and still controversial set of incidents involved Chŏn Du-hwan and No  Tae-u’s “rolling coup“ from late 1979 to mid 1980. Initially, they led an internal insurrection within the Korean military on December 12, 1979. Later, on May 17, 1980, they declared martial law and sent ROK troops into Kwangju, where they massacred several hundred South Korean citizens. Occurring in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, and soon after the assassination of South Korea’s longtime ruler Park Chŏng-hŭi, these events took place at a time when the Carter Administration’s concerns over global and peninsular instability converged.

U.S. officials responded to the December 12, 1979 ROK military mutiny with characteristic apprehension. They were disconcerted that Chŏn and No had violated the U.S.-ROK command structure by sending armored units to the ROK Army headquarters, arresting martial law commanders, and replacing them with officers loyal to Major General Chŏn. In a formerly classified diplomatic cable, from Richard C. Holbrooke, then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to William Gleysteen, the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Holbrooke stated that he had assured the ROK Ambassador to the U.S. that the “USG would not publicly contest the ROKG version of recent events, but we would not wish to see further military changes of command ‘Korea style’.” He added that: “the president is very anxious that the Combined Forces Command arrangements remain inviolate,” for if “the integrity of the ROK military command structure should become badly breached, this would offer a dangerous opportunity for North Korean intervention.” Furthermore, the U.S. did not want to see “the “overthrow of civilian rule in Korea,” and hoped that “orderly progress toward a broadly based political development [would] continue.” Yet, consistent with past events, the main U.S. anxiety was stability even if this came at the expense of political reform.

Although controversy still exists regarding the exact nature of U.S. involvement in the events in Kwangju during May 1980, documents do show that U.S. officials were aware that ROK Special Forces were being used, and that there was general agreement among these officials that “the first priority is the restoration of order…by the Korean authorities with the minimum use of force necessary without laying the seeds for wide disorders later.” In the wake of the atrocities, UNC Commander, General John Wickham gave permission for the regular ROK Army 20th Division to retake the city because the U.S. “did not want the special forces used further.” In the following years, the U.S. established its own Special Operations Command Korea (SOCKOR), which since its inception has been institutionally organized for combined operations with the ROK Army Special Warfare Command (SWC). This is the only such arrangement the U.S. has anywhere in the world.

The bilateral security alliance withstood the tumultuous 1980s that witnessed South Korean democratization and dissident accusations that the U.S. was behind the violent crackdown in Kwangju. Without passing judgment on what the U.S. could have or should have done to prevent the atrocities in Kwangju, many South Koreans were greatly disappointed that the Americans didn’t intervene to prevent the bloodshed, while others believed that Washington was responsible for the crackdown. The U.S. perspective, which is articulated in the memoires of then Ambassador William Gleysteen and then UNC Commander John Wickham, was that the U.S. was committed to protecting the ROK for global strategic purposes in the context of the Cold War but this commitment created U.S. entanglement in South Korean domestic politics that did not serve American objectives. Abandoning Seoul was not credible because of concerns that Pyongyang might exploit an unstable ROK, which allowed Chŏn and his mutiny partners to act opportunistically to seize control of the ROK Army and eventually the ROK government.

North Korean Provocations

Even though the U.S. maintained OPCON of the ROK military, sometimes Seoul and Washington disagreed over how to respond to North Korean provocations. In most cases, South Korea desired robust military retaliation but the U.S. was reluctant because of concerns over escalation. For example, in January 1968, the U.S. restrained the ROK from responding aggressively to a raid by [North] Korean People’s Army (KPA) commandos who nearly reached the Blue House in an attempt to assassinate President Park Chung-hee. Only two days later, the KPA Navy seized the USS Pueblo and its crew, which led the U.S. to begin direct negotiations with Pyongyang. Washington’s refusal to retaliate militarily infuriated Park and created considerable tension in the alliance. In April 1969, only four months after the release of the USS Pueblo crew, North Korea shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 reconnaissance plane, killing all thirty-one on board. Nevertheless, aside from resuming reconnaissance flights, the Americans deliberately avoided a military confrontation.

These events and subsequent developments demonstrated the complexities and contradictions in the U.S. security commitment to South Korea, particularly in relation to larger U.S. strategic thinking. First, the events pointed to the lack of U.S. military preparedness for anything other than all-out war on the peninsula, or, more aptly, the lack of sophistication in its “undifferentiated blanket deterrence commitment.” In order to deal with a crisis such as the capture of the USS Pueblo, the U.S. aimed to develop a strategy of mobile defense, utilizing increased air and naval mobility, instead of solely relying on forward deployed land forces backed up with nuclear strike forces. Such a move could provide a more diverse and credible set of options beyond simply doing nothing or, alternatively, all-out war, which proved to be not credible. Second, the events led to more precise mechanisms for alliance consultation and crisis management. The establishment in February 1968 of the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) was a notable example of this.

Third, increasing domestic pressure to extract American forces from the quagmire in Vietnam also had significant implications for Korea. Nixon’s “Guam Doctrine,” announced in July 1969, called for a drawdown in American forces and a concomitant increase in the responsibilities and capabilities of U.S. allies, particularly in terms of military personnel. In South Korea, this resulted in the withdrawal by March 1971 of the 7th Infantry Division (about 20,000 troops) and the shift of U.S. forces away from the DMZ. With the exception of the Joint Security Area (JSA), U.S. troops would no longer man the large portions of the DMZ that they had defended since the armistice in 1953. South Koreans were expected to fill these forward positions as well as increase their defense and war-fighting capabilities through a concerted defense modernization program. Indeed, for the U.S., ROK efforts toward self-reliance were becoming justification for the alliance commitment itself. The Americans would only help those who help themselves.

However, while the Nixon Doctrine aimed to provide space for a more flexible U.S. commitment predicated on increased South Korean capabilities, it contained an inherent contradiction. On the one hand, U.S. military drawdowns undermined South Korean confidence in the credibility of the U.S. political commitment (i.e., Washington’s willingness to honor the Mutual Defense Treaty), and thus fostered South Korean policies divergent from those of the U.S. On the other hand, U.S. pressure on the ROK to take on more operational responsibilities and to pursue defense modernization gave the South Koreans the opportunity and capability to act on these policy differences. This had implications for escalation or instability both in immediate and larger, strategic terms. First, in the case of a North Korean provocation, the South Koreans, now deployed in frontline positions might react more forcefully than before since the Americans would not be there to ensure that the alliance exercised restraint to avoid escalation. Second, doubting U.S. willingness to honor its commitment in the case of deterrence failure, the South Koreans might seek an independent nuclear deterrent.

U.S. officials were firmly aware of these possibilities, and subsequently discovered Park’s secret nuclear weapons program. Consequently, in order to curtail Park’s nuclear ambitions, the U.S. provided a more credible security assurance in the form of weapons sales, military technology transfers, and large-scale military exercises. Yet the Nixon Doctrine was never meant to signal complete retrenchment from the region or South Korea. Ultimately, U.S. strategists doubted, as Kissinger wrote, “the ability of our allies to assume their own defense completely and we feared that the removal of our shield might tempt aggression.” For Kissinger, the need to reaffirm the stability of the U.S. commitment was only reinforced by the disaster of Vietnam and the ignominious final withdrawal in the spring of 1975. In December that year, President Gerald Ford announced his own Ford or Pacific Doctrine, stating: “American strength is basic to any stable balance of power in the Pacific.” Nonetheless, despite such reaffirmations, the precariousness of American forward deployments and security commitment to South Korea was once again laid bare following the P’anmunjŏm axe murder incident in August 1976.

The axe murders in the JSA once again revealed the intrinsic difficulties for the U.S. Despite the inclination of some U.S. officials to retaliate, they could not guarantee the North Korean would not escalate the situation. In addition, these same officials doubted they could adequately explain or justify to Congress such potentially destabilizing retaliatory strikes as a response to the death of two U.S. officers. Kissinger noted: “Our explanation would look very weak”. The South Koreans themselves expressed concern or uncertainty regarding a U.S. response Again, Kissinger added: “Every time I wanted to hit hard at the North Koreans last week I was told that Park didn’t want to take military action. Now I gather he wants to do something.”

Three months after the axe murders and operation Paul Bunyan, which deployed a massive show of force to the region, Jimmy Carter won the presidential election after having run on a platform that promised to withdraw U.S. forces from Korea. Memories of the Vietnam debacle were fresh in the minds of American voters who wished to avoid becoming embroiled in another Asian land war. Carter’s personal aversion to Park’s record on human rights is well documented. To make matters even worse for the alliance, U.S. public support for the ROK plummeted in the wake of the “Koreagate” bribery scandal in 1976 whereby South Korean businessman Pak Tong-sŏn admitted to having bribed U.S. Congressmen in an effort to reverse Nixon’s Guam Doctrine and U.S. military withdrawal’s from the ROK.

South Koreans were not the only East Asian allies troubled by Carter’s plan to withdraw U.S. forces from the ROK. Japan quietly protested in the belief that the security of the ROK was critical for Japan’s security, and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said the plan raised suspicions about Washington’s security commitments for the whole region. Eventually, bureaucratic pushback in Washington, in addition to a revised assessment of the North Korean military build-up in the 1970s, led Carter to postpone his plan to withdraw ground forces and to cancel plans to withdraw air and naval forces from the ROK. Nevertheless, ROK fears of abandonment did not really begin to subside until President Reagan reversed the policy upon entering office in 1981.

Historically, South Korea’s fear of abandonment led Seoul to pursue defense modernization, with moral hazard problems periodically influencing that modernization. However, as the ROK’s material contribution to the alliance has increased, we have seen South Korea become concerned over entrapment by the U.S. In brief, as the weaker alliance partner’s dependence on the stronger partner decreases, the fear of entrapment can take on greater relative weight. This is evident in South Korea wanting to avoid having to choose between the U.S. and China, or even worse, being dragged into an offshore conflict such as a confrontation in the Taiwan Strait.

However, the fear of entrapment is not exclusively the concern of the weaker alliance partner. Indeed, over the history of the alliance the U.S. repeatedly has shown uneasiness regarding the possibility of being entrapped in an escalatory situation on the peninsula and, as a result, has attempt to exert control in order to prevent this. There are several elements to this problem. The first relates to the maintenance of deterrence by punishment or by denial of DPRK aggression. For the U.S., this means deterring belligerent North Korean actions, but once deterrence fails at the lower levels of a violent escalatory cycle, the U.S. might need to restrain South Korea from over-reacting and escalating the intensity of violence.

The second element involves reestablishing deterrence after deterrence fails, which can be complicated by the need to credibly demonstrate to Pyongyang the ability and the will to exercise restraint so that the DPRK leadership will determine that it is in its interest to cease hostilities and return to a stable status quo. If the U.S.-ROK alliance is unable to demonstrate the ability to exercise restraint, the DPRK could read any punitive action as the beginning of a relentless and unmitigated counter-attack, which would give DPRK military commanders an incentive to use all of their assets before being destroyed.

The third element, which is more applicable to the historical past than today, includes U.S. apprehensions regarding the maintenance of order within South Korea, out of the fear that North Korea could foment internal instability and exploit that to execute a military attack against Seoul. For successive U.S. administrations this meant, on the one hand, permitting and even encouraging South Korean leaders to repress domestic dissent (often with heavy-handed brutality), but on the other, preventing Seoul from carving out so much space that overall U.S. control of the alliance was compromised. The U.S. repeatedly expressed concern that too much South Korean repression, although aimed at maintaining order, could itself exacerbate internal instability.

Moving Forward

Similar to the historical events described above, in 2010 U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates counseled restraint on the part of the South Koreans in their response to the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Writing in his memoir, Gates said that: “South Korea’s original plans for retaliation were, we thought, disproportionately aggressive, involving both aircraft and artillery…We were worried the exchanges could escalate dangerously.” In the days following, Gates, U.S. President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made numerous calls to their South Korean counterparts to cool things down.

Considering current trends, including Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, U.S. concerns over escalation and possible entrapment take on a new imperative. Simply put, as the ROK continues to take on greater operational control and counter-fire roles, Seoul will have more autonomy in how it responds to Pyongyang’s belligerence. In fact, since the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and the artillery attack against Yeonpyeong Island, junior ROK military officers have openly expressed their desire to “settle scores with North Korea,” openly chafing under the restraints that historically have held them back.

As Pyongyang continues to develop its asymmetric threats, the danger of escalation is becoming even more worrisome. Institutional deepening on the working-level in addition to combined and joint military exercises help prepare for a wide range of contingencies that could materialize from escalation. Resources, training, preparation, declaratory policies, and periodic signaling of resolve and reassurance are critical components of escalation management. While any particular historical case might not apply to future crises on the peninsula, historical lessons are an important first step in understanding how past escalatory dynamics affected U.S. and ROK fears of abandonment and entrapment. More importantly, those lessons provide a basis for charting optimal responses as we head in a new and dangerous direction.

Daniel A. Pinkston, Ph.D. is a lecturer in international relations with Troy University in Seoul, Korea. Clint Work is a Ph.D. student at the Jackson School of International Studies University of Washington, Seattle, U.S.A.