Times when tensions on the Korean Peninsula were worse than they are now
Lost amid news of the DIA report claiming North Korea could put a nuclear warhead on a missile, which emerged Friday during a House intelligence hearing, was Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s remark at that same hearing that relations between the DPRK, South Korea, and the United States have often been much worse than ...
Lost amid news of the DIA report claiming North Korea could put a nuclear warhead on a missile, which emerged Friday during a House intelligence hearing, was Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's remark at that same hearing that relations between the DPRK, South Korea, and the United States have often been much worse than they are now.
Lost amid news of the DIA report claiming North Korea could put a nuclear warhead on a missile, which emerged Friday during a House intelligence hearing, was Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s remark at that same hearing that relations between the DPRK, South Korea, and the United States have often been much worse than they are now.
Although the North has threatened the United States many times during the current crisis — and warned that Russian diplomats should evacuate Pyongyang (while at the same time inviting people there for a marathon and Kim Il Sung’s birthday party) — no shots have been fired, no ships seized, no planes downed, no assassinations attempted, and most importantly no one has been killed during this latest round of bluster.
"I was around in the intelligence business in 1968 during the Pueblo seizure," Clapper told the committee. "And I was at Pacific Command headquarters in 1976 during the tree-cutting incident in the joint security area, which, of course, resulted in the murders of two American soldiers. I can recall in those two cases where I thought the tenseness, if you will, genuine tenseness, was actually greater than today. What we have today is a lot of rhetoric, a lot of belligerent rhetoric, but I think some historical context might be helpful."
As a follow up to Clapper’s comments, we thought it would be useful to put together a list of just a handful of the many times when things have actually turned deadly on the Korean Peninsula.
Let’s start with the North’s artillery barrage against South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010. That incident began after South Korea held military exercises nearby, prompting the North to lob at least 50 artillery shells onto the island, killing three South Korean marines and injuring another 16 marines and three civilians. The South responded by firing at least 80 shells into North Korea.
In May 2010, a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo into a South Korean navy’s patrol ship, the Cheonan, splitting it in two and killing 46 of the sailors aboard. The North denied any involvement in the incident despite a UN investigation that found overwhelming evidence that it was the work of the North Korean navy.
In the 1976 tree-cutting incident that Clapper referred to, two U.S. Army officers were clubbed and axed to death by North Korean troops for no apparent reason while they led a work detail to prune a poplar tree in a section of the DMZ that is jointly maintained by the UN and North Korean troops. This incident prompted the U.S to seriously flex its muscles, deploying attack helicopters, fighter jets, B-52s, and an aircraft carrier to deter North Korea from doing anything while U.S. troops finished pruning the tree several days later in Operation Paul Bunyan.
Forty-five years ago today, on April 15, 1968, North Korean fighter jets shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 Warning Star spy plane 90 nautical miles off the Korean coastline over the Sea of Japan, killing 31 Americans. U.S. and Soviet ships cooperated to search for survivors and debris of the plane, which had been collecting electronic intelligence on the USSR. The U.S. resumed the flights soon after.
1968 was a terrible year for U.S.-North Korean relations. In January, the North Koreans seized the lightly armed intelligence ship, USS Pueblo, in an incident that killed at least one U.S. sailor. The ship was taken to Wonsan North Korea, and its remaining 82 crewmen were held in POW camps for 11 months, released after the U.S. issued an apology for spying, which it retracted as soon as the crew was repatriated.
Just days before the Pueblo was seized, 31 North Korean commandos snuck into Seoul in an attempt to assassinate the South Korean president at his residence, the Blue House. The commandos were repulsed and most were killed, along with dozens of South Koreans and four U.S. troops.
(The Pueblo and EC-121 incidents happened during a time of increased tensions on the and around the Korean Peninsula between 1966 and 1969 sometimes called the Second Korean War.)
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.
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