Thursday, June 01, 2023

"North Korean Reactions to Instability in the South" and "The South Korean Political Scene "

 On December 20, 1979, the CIA released a report titled "North Korean Reactions to Instability in the South." This report came 8 days after Chun Doo-hwan's December 12 insurrection and takeover of the ROK military, and the authors of the report clearly had this on their minds, since they thought the "emergence of fighting between South Korean military factions" was a possibility moving forward. It's also clear that such intra-ROK military tension was perceived as being as much a source of instability as "widespread civil disorders". The report followed years of debate over Carter's troop withdrawal policy that was postponed and ultimately quietly shelved after new intelligence in mid-1979 showed large increases in North Korean troop numbers and tanks.

This report is also important because it was one of the files provided to CIA Director Stansfield Turner prior to the May 22, 1980 Periodic Review Committee meeting in which Chun Doo-hwan's military coup of May 17, as well as the Gwangju Uprising, were discussed by prominent Carter Administration officials. In fact, according to the Platt Memo, Turner stated at the meeting that there was a "50:50 chance on whether North Korea will do something, whether they will attack or infiltrate", which shows this document's influence on the CIA director (though it should be noted that General David Jones, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at that meeting that "We doubt that North Korea will make an attack, but are likely to infiltrate").

Here is the report:

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SNIE 42/14.2-79 

North Korean Reactions to Instability in the South 

Information available as of 20 December 1979 was used in the preparation of this Estimate.

This estimate is issued by the Director of Central Intelligence. 

The National Foreign Intelligence Board concurs, except as noted in the text. 

The following intelligence organizations participated in the preparation of the Estimate: 

The Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. 

Also Participating: 

The Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Department of the Army 

The Director of Naval Intelligence, Department of the Navy 

The Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, Department of the Air Force 

North Korean Reactions to Instability in the South 


This contingency estimate addresses the likelihood of a North Korean attack on the South if severe fighting between South Korean military factions and widespread civil disorders develop there during the next two or three months. It assumes a level of instability which may not develop. 

Key Judgements

The emergence of fighting between South Korean military factions and widespread civil disorders in South Korea would prompt Pyongyang to consider forceful reunification of the peninsula.

However, Pyongyang would face a crucial imponderable in attempting to determine the US response to a North Korean attack, given the presence of US ground forces in the South and the virtual certainty of their being engaged. With the US-South Korean relationship clearly strained by the chaos in the South, and the United States preoccupied with events in Iran and possibly elsewhere, the North would probably calculate that US capability and resolve to defend South Korea had been weakened. 

In view of the magnitude of the decision facing Pyongyang and the risk involved, we cannot judge with confidence whether or not it would opt for military action. We believe, however, that the chances of such action could be as high as 50-50 under this scenario.* If the North should decide to intervene, it would most probably launch a massive assault designed to destroy organized resistance and consolidate its control over the South. 

* The Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, believes it impossible to calculate odds in circumstances that demand so many subjective judgments, including North Korea's perception of the risk of war with the United States and loss of so much of the progress of which North Koreans are so proud. He agrees, however, that there would be a significantly higher risk of hostilities. 


1. North Korean President Kim Il-song would view the emergence of fighting between South Korean military factions and widespread civil disorders in the wake of South Korean President Park's death as a unique opportunity to reunify the Korean Peninsula on his terms. In 1975, Kim publicly declared that the North would not stand idly by if "revolutionary conditions" developed in the South, a sentiment that Pyongyang has subsequently publicized. Privately, Kim has described the unsettled period between the resignation of Syngman Rhee in 1960 and the military coup in 1961 as a golden opportunity that the North was militarily unprepared to exploit. Given the significant expansion of North Korean military capabilities over the past decade, Kim is now in far better position to take such action. 

The Deterrent 

2. In considering an attack on a militarily weakened South Korea, Pyongyang would weigh the attitudes of its major allies and, most importantly, the US security commitment to Seoul. For years, Moscow and Beijing have cautioned Kim, but their influence has decreased as the North's military self-sufficiency has grown. If Kim were otherwise convinced that military intervention were in his interest, it is doubtful that China or the USSR could veto the venture. 

3. We judge that North Korea would attack the South if there were no US military presence. The presence of US ground forces, however, and the virtual certainty of their being engaged during any sizable North Korean assault must give Pyongyang pause. The North has long recognized that the presence of US infantry north of Seoul is a deterrent above and beyond the US treaty commitment to South Korea. We continue to believe that one of Pyongyang's key objectives throughout the 1970s has been to end the US troop presence in the South. 

4. The North would be aware of strains in the US-South Korean relationship flowing from the domestic chaos in the South. Pyongyang would probably calculate that US resolve to defend South Korea had been weakened to some extent, more so if a debate on Korean policy developed in the United States. 

5. The North would also consider US concerns and involvement outside Korea. It might perceive current US preoccupation in the Middle East and Southeast Asia as a factor that would decrease its degree of risk in taking military action. On the other hand, Pyongyang might consider US frustration and anger over the Iranian situation and evidence of a renewed mood of American assertiveness as ominous indicators of Washington's willingness to respond to an attack on US forces in Korea. The North would also assess US ability to respond rapidly. If the United States were to become militarily involved elsewhere in a major way, we would expect the North to see the degree of risk substantially reduced. A key indicator for Pyongyang would be the continued presence of US forces in Korea and elsewhere in Northeast Asia, or earmarked for use there. 

6. In view of the magnitude of the decision facing Pyongyang and the risk involved, we cannot judge with confidence whether or not it would opt for an all-out assault. We believe, however, that the chances of such action could be as high as 50-50.

Military Options 

7. Pyongyang might consider either: (1) some form of limited military intervention that would minimize risks, test US resolve, and add to the process of disintegration in the South, or (2) launching a major offensive. We believe that Pyongyang would reject the first course. Since the Korean war, the North has tried a wide variety of lesser measures with little success. In view of those experiences, the North might well calculate that limited action would be a net loss. US and South Korean forces might not accurately gauge the North's limited objectives; if so, the North's risks would not be lessened. In the past, the assumption of a menacing posture by the North has had a unifying effect upon the South, and Pyongyang would have little reason to judge otherwise this time. Finally, measured North Korean military action would yield limited gains at best, and yet could help to suspend US troop withdrawals indefinitely. 

8. Thus we believe that North Korean military intervention would likely take the form of a large-scale, coordinated ground, naval, and air assault against the South. Large numbers of ranger-commando troops would be inserted both immediately behind the South's frontlines and deep into the interior to support frontal attacks by conventional ground forces across the Demilitarized Zone. The North's Air Force would attempt to neutralize the South Korean and US close-air-support capability by attacking airfields and command and control and air defense sites. The North Korean Navy would support assaults on key coastal targets and conduct antishipping operations off the South's coasts. 

9. Although control of the Seoul area would be an initial objective, we believe that the North's ultimate goal would be the unification of the entire peninsula through military conquest. Our knowledge of North Korean military tactics and strategy has improved in recent years. Available information indicates that the North plans to seize all of South Korea by employing the principles of surprise, rapid movement, and destruction of as many South Korean troops as possible. Both military and civilian defectors and captured agents from North Korea speak of total victory as the purpose of a campaign against the South and deny that the North plans for a war with limited objectives. 

10. In our view, North Korea would attempt to continue the invasion and to consolidate control over the South as long as its military operations were successful. The North's increased numbers of military units, personnel, and equipment would permit sustained operations far longer than we considered possible even two years ago. North Korea's transportation net is sufficient for continued resupply unless seriously interrupted by enemy action, and if the North's storage tanks were full, there would be sufficient POL [Petroleum, oil, lubricants] to support military operations for several months. Other critical supplies are believed sufficient for at least 30 days of heavy combat. 

11. The USSR and China, as treaty allies of Pyongyang, almost certainly would respond cautiously to a North Korean attack on South Korea. Both would want to avoid a direct military confrontation with the United States; the Chinese in particular would be loath to jeopardize their developing relationship with the United States. Nonetheless, because of their mutual rivalry and the strategic importance of maintaining a nonhostile state in North Korea, the USSR and China would feel compelled to provide at least some material assistance to Pyongyang. 

12. The level and nature of Soviet and Chinese support would depend, among other things, on the magnitude of the US reaction, the extent and duration of the hostilities, Soviet and Chinese expectations concerning the outcome on the battlefield, and the importance the two countries attach to competing with each other for influence with the North Korean regime. Neither ally would be likely to intervene directly in a conflict on the peninsula unless, as in 1950, the survival of the Pyongyang regime were threatened.

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On February 14, 1980, the CIA published a report entitled "The South Korean Political Scene" which examined all of the prominent political players and other groups jockeying for power, as well as the economic factors that threatened stability.

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14 February 1980 

Intelligence Memorandum 

The South Korean Political Scene 


The government of President Choe Kyu-ha is moving gradually towards a more liberal political system, but his task will be complicated by a deteriorating economic situation, concerns as to the military's internal stability and fears that the army might attempt to take full control of the political process. Martial law is likely to remain in force for the foreseeable future to deal with expected student demonstrations in the spring and deter labor riots that could erupt as a result of the economic downturn. Anti-government elements have so far adopted a pose of moderation, hoping to keep the political temperature down during the tense months of transition. This mood of moderation probably will dissipate as the political parties and politicians vie for supremacy. Seoul’s recently resumed dialogue with Pyongyang is likely to put further pressures on the government during the transition period.

Since the assassination of President Park last October, the new government of Choe Kyu-ha has been moving steadily toward a loosening of Park's authoritarian political system (Yusin) and a greater measure of political liberalization. Having moved quickly to remove some of the detested trappings of the Park era – such as the restrictive Emergency Measure No. 9 – and having released most political prisoners, Choe is now overseeing the drafting of a new constitution. He has said that he will step down after the new constitution is approved by popular referendum and new presidential elections are held - probably in the spring.

Choe – who lacks the decisive leadership skills and power base of Park – will be hard pressed to maintain stability in the months to come. Several factors complicate this task. First, the South Korean economy, after years of rapid growth, is now in the midst of a sharp downturn. A currency devaluation of nearly 20 percent and a 59 percent increase in oil prices last month will further fuel inflation this year, raising the rate to about 25-30 percent. Unemployment is also expected to increase during 1980. Some government officials fear that skyrocketing prices and rising unemployment will lead to labor unrest in the spring. Though the Choe government has taken economically sound measures to deal with these problems, both the pro-government and the opposition party have begun to attack the administration for its economic policies. 

The most disturbing unknown, however, is the simmering turbulence within the Army. The faction of Major General Chon Tu-hwan – the strongman who seized control of the army in a violent military action last December – appears to hold a firm grip on power, but numerous elements have been angered by his takeover. Although there is no firm evidence that there is any cohesive group within the military strong enough to challenge Chon, we cannot discount the possibility that such a group will emerge and attempt a counteraction. Should more restiveness surface, it could undermine domestic political stability, erode business confidence at home and overseas, and even encourage North Korea to launch a military thrust against the South. 

Even if there is no further instability within the military, the army will exert an influence – direct or indirect – on all major policy decisions. General Chon has steadfastly denied that he has political ambitions or that he plans to become involved in politics, but the pervasive fear that he might has served to keep political emotions in check. There is also a question as to the degree of political liberalization the military will tolerate. They clearly will not permit the election of a controversial dissident figure as president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Many civilians fear that, if confronted by a deteriorating political situation, the military will not hesitate to intervene, extending their martial law powers and perhaps even supplanting the civilian authority. 

Although the military has taken care to reduce its visibility, its influence nevertheless has been pervasive. Martial law – In force for nearly four months – has put a damper on political activity by prohibiting certain kinds of political meetings and by implementing an effective press censorship. The military will probably be unwilling to lift martial law as long as the danger of anti-government activity exists. 

Government and military authorities are also concerned over the prospect of campus demonstrations this spring. Should these demonstrations spill over into the streets, they could stimulate the unemployed and the economically disadvantaged elements to vent their grievances, thus acting as a catalyst for riots such as occurred in two southern industrial cities last October. The government has been working to mollify the students before the new school semester begins next month, but many issues remain unsolved. 

An uneasy truce continues between the two major political parties, the majority Democratic Republican Party and the opposition New Democratic Party. Aware of the dangers of exciting the political atmosphere, the opposition elements have adhered to a moderate course and have not pressed the government on a number of sensitive issues. This moderate pose will probably not last much longer, as the exigencies of politics will force the opposition and pro-government parties to sharpen their differences. As these differences begin to surface, hard-line dissidents are likely to begin to press demands that will be clearly unacceptable to the government and the military. Such intemperate activities could force the authorities to resort to harsh action to suppress dissidence, which would in turn further inflame the situation. 

Fear and distrust of North Korea continue to influence Seoul's policies. Acting on a North Korean overture, South Korea recently began a series of preparatory meetings with Pyongyang aimed at an eventual meeting of the prime ministers of the two sides. The North Korean move seems designed to put further pressure on Choe during the delicate transition period and to create an atmosphere that would facilitate the loosening of the US-ROK security relationship. Although Seoul is suspicious of the North's intentions and is expected to move cautiously, this new dialogue with Pyongyang might be exploited by anti-government politicians, who are likely to criticize any unilateral arrangements with North Korea made by an "interim government" without the participation of all political parties.

This memorandum, requested by the Secretary of the Treasury, was prepared by [          ] the East Asia-Pacific Division, Office of Political Analysis. The paper has been coordinated with the Office of Economic Research, the Office of Strategic Research and the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia-Pacific. Research was completed on 13 February 1980. 

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This report examines the various forces at play through the lens of threats to stability, with a mention of "the dangers of exciting the political atmosphere" amid the "fear that, if confronted by a deteriorating political situation, the military will not hesitate to intervene, extending their martial law powers and perhaps even supplanting the civilian authority" - a fear that turned out to be fully justified, though it's entirely likely, as noted in the reports here, that Chun was trying to provoke students so as to encourage instability that could be used as a pretext for a military takeover. 

At any rate, according to pages 16-20 of this pdf, with the two CIA reports above and the two CIA reports from May 1980 posted here, we can see the bulk of the files given to brief the CIA director before the May 22, 1980 meeting at the White House to discuss events in Korea. Other, more recent CIA reports from Korea (heavily censored as they are) can be found here, and reports from May 22 note that "Violence has spread to about 16 towns within a 50-mile radius of Kwangju, all in South Cholla Province", as well as the prediction that "The military would be hard pressed to deal with simultaneous uprisings of the same magnitude in other areas." When taken together with the report "North Korean Reactions to Instability in the South," summarized in the May 9, 1980 memorandum "Growing Unrest in South Korea and Prospects for Takeover by Military Strongman Chon Doo Hwan," with the statement "the emergence of widespread civil disorder in the South would prompt Pyongyang to consider forceful reunification of the peninsula", it's clear at least some  high-ranking US officials believed there was a 50/50 chance of North Korea taking advantage of events in the South to the point of, in the worst case, invading.

Below is a map I made of the towns and cities where arms seizures or demonstrations took place during late May 1980 (based mostly on information in Memories of May 1980: A Documentary History of the Kwangju Uprising in Korea, which is downloadable here). 

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