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North Korea and U.S. Violation of International Waters

For much of military history, combatants of all nationalities have operated under the guidance of an ancient adage:  all’s fair in love and war. Unfortunately, even with the advent of maritime law and international conventions on the conduct of war, countries continue to commit violations of one kind or another during times of conflict, such as during the Korean War. Tensions on the peninsular remained high even after the War ended, which often led to drastic, sometimes illegal measures. In an interview with Thomas Stern beginning October 1996, Paul M. Cleveland, who was serving as the Political Counselor in Seoul in the mid-1970s, discusses Korean tensions over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Northern Line Limit (NLL) and laments how forces under the salty Admiral Hank Morgan attacked North Korean patrol boats on the high seas, which ended up killing 30 North Korean fishermen in what Cleveland called “an act of piracy.”  Read also about North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo and other Moments about Korea.

A Korean Powder-Keg

CLEVELAND:  The Koreans were very much concerned about “saving face” and also believed in the “eye- for-an-eye” policy. This always therefore required a prompt response to any actual or perceived injury received from another party. Not to retaliate was seen as an invitation for further action by the adversary because he would view a lack of response as a sign of weakness. It was not that the South Koreans were looking to make war, but their view required a response of at least equal magnitude to any provocation from another party.

That attitude and philosophy is bound to cause some concern for a foreign observer, such as the United States even if it was closely allied with South Korea. We were always afraid that in this charge-counter charge atmosphere, developments might spin out of control and we would find ourselves in a battle that we had not sought. [Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Philip] Habib used to comment that no one could ever know what went on in the DMZ; it was always a powder-keg that could explode at any time. He would sometimes add that it might be just as well that we didn’t know all that was going on there — it might prevent any of us from sleeping at all. So the possibility of escalation was never far from our thoughts.

On the other hand, I observed over time that Koreans were almost mercurial in the way they reacted to a situation; they would be quick to return fire with fire. But it was also noticeable that these incidents calmed down as quickly as they arose, particularly the ones that occurred at sea or in the air. Those were incidents we could monitor with our electronic equipment, unlike events on the DMZ, which required visual observation.

It became clear to me that whenever a confrontation started, it was immediately taken over by a central command, on both sides. Once that control was established — and sometimes we were talking about just minutes — airplanes that were dispatched for action, would begin to circle and cease aggressive action. So I felt that at least at the command-and-control level, good common sense was being exercised with a remarkable — and correct — dose of restraint and reality being exercised on both sides. These observations further fortified my view that all Koreans, regardless of the regime they lived under, were very similar in their reactions and outlook. It was probably true that the volatility that we were worried about and our anxiety about the actions of Koreans on both sides of the DMZ were probably under better control than we thought. Still, in all, they were all Koreans!

“Goddamn it, you sound just like a fucking Congressman!”

Before ending the discussion of this part of my career, I would describe one incident because I consider it illustrative of a lot of the issues that we confronted on a daily basis.

One late winter evening in February, 1977 (I believe), I heard that a confrontation had taken place at sea. As was my practice, I immediately went to the command post at Yongsan. When I got there I found Admiral Hank Morgan, the head of our DMZ negotiating team and the senior U.S. Naval officer in Korea, sitting in his office looking pensively at the ceiling. He told me a little about the incident, including the fact that there had been a number of deaths.

He told me that North Korean fast patrol boats had crossed the so-called “Northern Limit Line” (NLL) at very high speed. That line was an arbitrary extension of the DMZ that had been drawn by someone, both into the China Sea and the Sea of Japan. It was not part of the Armistice Agreement and legally, the North could wander across it into the open seas outside of the 12-mile territorial limit as much as they wished. But someone, long before, had drawn this line on a map and by custom it had become a line which we and the South Koreans did not expect the North to cross. And in fact, both sides had respected this line before 1976-77 even though it had no legal status. So when the North Korean patrol boats crossed that line, it became a challenge.

Morgan, on his own authority, had ordered a South Korean destroyer out to sea to intercept these patrol boats. He ordered that the North Korean boats be boarded. When he told me that, I instinctively reacted with a question: “But, Hank, aren’t these boats on the high seas?”

He agreed that was the fact and then I injudiciously asked whether boarding those boats was not an act of piracy.

Morgan flew out of the chair and yelled at me: “Goddamn it, Cleveland, you sound just like a fucking Congressman!”

I will never forget those words….As you can well imagine, the tension was very high.

I suggested that, in fact, the Admiral just might have to talk to those Congressmen or at least that someone might have to answer to Congress for Morgan’s decision.

During this discussion with Morgan, I found out that the destroyer had cut a North Korean fishing boat in two and 30 DPRK fisherman had drowned. It was a tragic consequence of a very rash decision which I think was faulty.

Later we surmised that the patrol boats had been dispatched to round up and bring the fishing boats back above the NLL. It was a purely defensive action by the North in an effort to save their fishermen.

It turned out to have tragic consequences stemming from a completely illegal order of piracy.

“Morgan committed an act of piracy”

At the end of my conversation with Morgan, I asked him: “Hank, why did you give that order?”

He answered that because if he hadn’t, [South Korean President] Park Chung Hee would have. My obvious observation was to ask why he didn’t let Park take the onus for an illegal act. Morgan’s final comment was: “I made an immediate decision to take action to insure that the Command would maintain operational control over the UN forces.”

This exchange illustrates clearly the conflicting pressures that all U.S. representatives in Korea faced. There were rare instances when an issue was clear cut. There were always a multitude of factors that had to be weighed. The importance that the Admiral placed on maintaining operational control is instructive because in this particular case, it became the predominant objective regardless of possible consequences, certainly including loss of life.

I fully accepted the importance of maintaining operational control, but I was also very aware of the potential risks and dangers that it imposed on us. It was a responsibility that has, on several occasions, placed the U.S. in very difficult circumstances and I think all commanders had to be aware of the pluses and minuses of having operational control over foreign forces…..

I think Morgan’s stated thought processes were very interesting:  he decided to maintain U.S. operational control at all costs. He was more concerned about the loss of U.S. control than he was of the immediate illegal action that he took. I don’t think it was a very good reason to kill thirty innocent people, regardless of their nationality. I don’t doubt that Morgan may well have thought that maintaining operational control in the U.S. command might have prevented an even greater tragedy.

But he committed an act of piracy — ordering a South Korean Navy to board North Korean ships in international waters. The second mistake, which was accidental, I am sure, was committed when the destroyer — in heavy winter fog — sliced through the fishing ship.

Morgan left Korea soon thereafter and retired from the Navy; I suspect that his action that night may well have had something to do with his early retirement.

This incident was also a prime example of the importance of civilian control over military actions —certainly during peace time. The action at sea had taken place before any civilian input could be brought to bear and that was most unfortunate.

The outcome of Morgan’s split second decision might have been far worse than it was. The North Koreans had every legal right to take retaliatory action — what the South Korean destroyer did was sheer piracy and no government in the world would or could have supported Morgan’s decision. I accept that there are times when it just isn’t possible to bring civilians into the decision-making process. There are undoubtedly times that the military has to react instantaneously for the protection of its own people. But that isn’t all that frequently and certainly in the case I have cited there was plenty of time to seek a civilian viewpoint.

Military operational control, as I said earlier, cuts both ways: it is a necessity in the Korean situation, but it is also a weapon that has to be used very, very carefully, fraught with danger and risks.