New York From the 1950s’ Pentagon to today’s Obama administration, the United States has repeatedly pondered, planned and threatened use of nuclear weapons against North Korea, according to declassified and other U.S. government documents released in this 60th-anniversary year of the Korean War.
Air Force bombers flew nuclear rehearsal runs over North Korea’s capital during the war. The U.S. military services later vied for the lead role in any “atomic delivery” over North Korea. In the late 1960s, nuclear-armed U.S. warplanes stood by in South Korea on 15-minute alert to strike the north.
Just this past April, issuing a U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said “all options are on the table” for dealing with Pyongyang — meaning U.S. nuclear strikes were not ruled out.
The stream of new revelations about U.S. nuclear planning further fills in a picture of what North Korea calls “the increasing nuclear threat of the U.S.,” which it cites as the reason it developed its own atom-bomb program — as a deterrent.
“This is the lesson we have drawn,” North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Pak Kil Yon, told the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 29.
The new information is contained in Korean War documents released by the CIA to mark this June’s anniversary of the start of the conflict; another declassified package obtained by Washington’s private National Security Archive research group under the Freedom of Information Act; and additional documents, also once top-secret and found at the U.S. National Archives, provided to The Associated Press by intelligence historian and author Matthew Aid.
Expert observers are speculating that North Korea, which conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, may soon stage another. Pyongyang’s program “has now reached an extremely dangerous level,” Kim Tae-hyo, a South Korean government security adviser, said in comments published Wednesday in Seoul.
In a report on global nuclear threats, analysts at Washington’s Stimson Center identify six overt warnings by high-ranking American officials since 1976 that the U.S. would resort to nuclear weapons against North Korea if warranted. But U.S. threats go back more than a half-century, to long before North Korea split its first atom.
In mid-August 1950, just seven weeks after North Korea invaded South Korea and five years after two U.S. atomic bombs killed at least 220,000 Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, U.S. nuclear weapons were first assigned to the new war theater, according to a declassified Army planning document obtained by the AP.
Retreating U.S. and South Korean troops were then desperately clinging to a last-ditch salient in Korea’s southeast, from which they soon broke out in a counteroffensive that took them into North Korea.
That November, after Chinese troops joined in defending North Korea, then-President Harry Truman rattled the nuclear saber at a Washington news conference, saying, “There has always been active consideration of its use.”
Regional U.S. commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in interviews published posthumously, said he had a plan at the time to drop 30 to 50 atom bombs across the northern neck of the Korean peninsula, to block further Chinese intervention.
Based on previously declassified documents, however, historians believe the U.S. came closest to unleashing its atomic arsenal against North Korea in April 1951, on the eve of an expected Chinese offensive.
With Truman’s signoff, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered A-bomb retaliation if large numbers of fresh Chinese troops entered the fight. In the end, the U.S. military repelled the Chinese push and the weapons were never used. But Pentagon planners retained the option.