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By: Marianne B. Conway
North Korea knows how to throw a party, especially on and around the April 15 birthday of the late Kim Il Sung, founder of North Korea and grandfather of current dictator Kim Jong Un (for horoscope followers, Kim shares his special day with movie stoner Seth Rogen, Leonardo DaVinci and Harry Potter star Emma Watson.)

Called the “Day of the Sun,” Kim’s birthday and the period around it are marked by propaganda blasts, nationwide festivities and military displays. Last year North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), launched a rocket to mark his 100th birthday; it blew up.

A more effective, and tragic, birthday show of force occurred decades ago, but still offers insights for today’s stand-off with Pyongyang. Then, as now, the U.S. was focused on conflicts outside Korea; in 1969 with North Vietnam (a North Korean ally) and today Iran (a North Korean ally). Then, as now, the White House was intent on reducing U.S. military entanglements, not opening new battlefields. Then, as now, U.S. planners had to cut through Pyongyang’s bluster to divine actual intent; find tactical responses both effective and unlikely to spark a major conflict; and reassure Asian allies of American resolve. Then, as now, North Korea wanted to display its power, foment a sense of crisis and test American alliances.

On April 15, 1969, a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane helmed by Lt. Cmdr. James Overstreet was conducting a routine patrol over the Sea of Japan in international airspace, Korean and Russian linguists aboard to collect intelligence. Then American radar operators warned that two North Korean MIG fighters were streaking toward the plane. Before the slow-moving EC-121 could escape, the radar images merged. It soon became clear North Korea had shot down the plane, killing 31 Americans; Overstreet was one of 29 crewmembers never recovered and presumed dead. [North Korea had shot at another U.S. reconnaissance aircraft in April 1965 and killed two American and two South Korean troops during an April 1968 ambush.]

While unremembered by many Americans, the attack still generates bragging by North Korea’s official news service, which claims the EC-121 violated DPRK airspace and mentioned the incident as recently as last month. "At the end of the 1960s, the air force of the KPA smashed U.S. large spy plane 'EC-121' into smithereens in the air to demonstrate its power again," stated the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in another article last year, which also recounted how DPRK pilots "dived into the (U.S.) enemy's ships with burning fuselages" during the Korean War.

“It is probably more than coincidence that the downing occurred on Kim Il-song’s 57th birthday,” reported the State Department’s senior intelligence official on April 16th 1969. “(T)he most likely North Korean motivation, then, is self gratification and increased prestige for Kim Il-song at the expense of the United States following a plan based on Pyongyang’s Pueblo experience.”

The Pueblo was a U.S. spy ship seized by North Korea the year before, during a campaign that included deadly attacks on U.S. ground troops and an unsuccessful attempt by a suicide squad to kill the South Korean president. The U.S., afraid to attack North Korea while it held the crew hostage, had been forced to apologize to Pyongyang in return for the Pueblo’s sailors.

These tensions with Pyongyang, though they seemed to be easing some by 1969, demanded increased U.S. intelligence collection, which had the paradoxical effect of keeping American reconnaissance assets in harm’s way.

Trying to extricate itself from Vietnam, and embarrassed by the Pueblo incident, the U.S. appeared to have limited stomach, and resources, for new battles. Soon after getting word of the EC-121 shoot down, President Nixon was also informed “there was an intelligence report of [Egyptian President] Nasser’s conversation with [Jordanian King] Hussein to the effect, ‘After all, it isn’t so risky to defy the United States—look at North Korea and the Pueblo,’” State Department records show.

“Kim Il-sung evidently has persuaded himself that the US is overextended in Vietnam and elsewhere and that North Korea therefore can engage in such deliberate acts of defiance with relative impunity,” the CIA concluded on April 17th. “The North Koreans probably made the decision to attack the reconnaissance aircraft on the assumption that there would either be no US military response or at the most only a limited one, in the nature of a one-time retaliatory action.”

The North Koreans were right. U.S. forces did go on alert, including some with nuclear weapons, according to later reports. Planners soon suggested everything from military feints to naval bombardment of North Korea, along with a range of air strike options. One of the President’s first reactions was to seize a North Korean ship, which could be traded for the Pueblo, still in North Korean hands. The problem was the ship carried a Dutch crew and was registered in that country, raising complex diplomatic and legal issues. “The President said to find a way that international law can be breached. The U.S. became a great nation by breaking international law,” according to State Department records of an April 15th telephone call between Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Assistant for National Security Affairs.

After much internal debate and public controversy, President Nixon decided not to grab the ship or launch a retaliatory air strike against the DPRK. Most of his military options raised the potential of a massive North Korean response and went against the “tide of general disenchantment (among Americans) with matters of a military nature,” as the Defense Secretary advised the President. Nixon instead settled for a naval show of strength and resumption of reconnaissance flights, with fighter cover. [The incident did prompt the White House to develop plans for responding to future North Korean attacks, including the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Once again Pyongyang had gotten away with attacking Americans at no significant cost. Back then, North Korea had a formidable military, but no advanced missiles or nuclear weapons as it does today. One wonders what lessons current leader Kim Jong Un takes from his grandfather’s 1969 “success.” Certainly Pyongyang’s nuclear threats to the American homeland mark an escalation from past crises.

As for Nixon, he grew to regret not following his immediate instinct to bomb North Korea. The communist strategy, he later said, is: “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw. I had feared in our handling of the EC-121 incident in 1969 the Communists may have thought they encountered mush.”

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