MONDAY MUSINGS – Iran a NukeProblem? What About N. Korea?

Monday – March 25, 2013

The guidelines for Monday Musings (July 9. 2012) recommended the avoidance of any heavy discussion of race, religion or politics. However, foreign policy is a different animal, and while it may certainly be subject to debate and differences of opinion, it should be above the cesspool of partisan politics – especially when nukes are involved.

Tremendous media attention has been given to the potential development by Iran of a nuclear weapon. “Romney! What would you do about it?…Obama! What are you going to do about it?” Great pressures are being exerted to decide what to do. Much less attention had been given to North Korea despite the fact that it had detonated 3 nuclear warheads, or Pakistan, which has detonated six and is not the most stable of countries.

Putting nuclear proliferation in perspective, nine nations are known to currently possess warheads: USA, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and yes, Israel. The USA and Russia still have thousands (former Russian republics Ukraine and Kazakhstan had either returned their warheads to Russia or dismantled them by 1995); the remaining countries (except North Korea) are thought to each have warheads at least in the 100 – 200 range. Commencing in 1970 a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (“NPT”) was introduced to the world. It now has 190 signatories. Since the first five countries named above already had warheads by 1970 they were “grandfathered” and recognized in the NPT as allowable nuclear weapon states (note: they are also the only 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council). India, Pakistan and Israel never signed the NPT. North Korea signed, but withdrew in 2003. The language of the NPT (disclaimer: haven’t read it) appears to be ambiguous enough to allow several nations to make their own interpretation, Iran being just one, claiming its nuclear development is only for peaceful, commercial purposes which, were it true, might be allowable under the NPT. North Korea, on the other hand, we know has nukes (a handful), and in the past few weeks has made bellicose threats to use them, while at the same time announcing that it no longer recognizes the armistice that ended the Korean War in1953 (it was only a ceasefire agreement; we’ve never had a peace treaty). While I expect their delivery capability to strike the USA to be years away, they do have intermediate range missiles capable of the 600 mile range to Japan, and North Korea is a proven, loose cannon provoker and troublemaker. I have my own personal reasons not to like them.

On January 23, 1968 a small, old US Navy ship was cruising more than 12 miles off the coast of North Korea in what is legally considered to be international waters (although North Korea claims itself a worldwide exception requiring a 50 mile international limit). The ship’s stated mission was oceanographic research, but in reality it was an intelligence gathering ship routinely, but passively, monitoring electronic emissions and voice communications. It had been harassed by North Korean ships the day before and passed this information up through the chain of command. It took 14 hours to reach the National Security Agency (“NSA”) in charge of conducting the operation in Fort Meade, Maryland, from which orders had been issued stating this was perceived to be a low risk mission because it was in international waters. Air cover was promised if the Pueblo were to come under attack. On the 23rd it was attacked, fired upon and boarded. The promised air cover never arrived. No US aircraft in Japan were on alert and none able to get airborne within 3 hours. One sailor was killed, 82 captured, taken hostage to Korea, blindfolded, routinely beaten, tortured, facing mock executions until they signed confessions admitting to espionage. They were held hostage 11 months, finally being released December 28, 1968, but only after 28 meetings in Panmunjom and the U.S. diplomats admitting in writing that the ship had been spying and promising not to do it again. This admission was verbally retracted as soon as the captives were released. The Pueblo is now moored in the river in Pyongyang and is part of a museum complex offering tours of the ship.

I had resigned as a navy pilot and was released the week after the Pueblo was captured. At the time it was considered a major crisis, some congressmen even advocating nuking North Korea if the prisoners were not released. I was offered a commission in the naval air reserve upon my resignation and would sort have liked to have accepted it and kept my hand in flying. But I had known too many WWII pilots who had joined the air reserve after the war and been called back to active duty to fly in Korea (think Ted Williams). It put a dent in their lives. To me that was a risk I did not want to take, thinking I might be called right back within weeks because of the Pueblo crisis. I put some of the blame on North Korea for that, another reason not to like them.

For my last 2 ½ years as a navy pilot I had been a plane commander in charge of an aircraft performing  similar types of missions as the Pueblo, except from the air. The navy had 9 such aircraft, 4 that conducted surveillance in the Pacific and 5 of us in the western world, also under the control of NSA and performing missions under the guise of oceanographic reconnaissance (think missile target acquisition radar locked on you 12 ½ miles off Murmansk, rigging Soviet Elint ships in the Outer Banks, conducting surveillance in the Black Sea, surprising a pack of Soviet subs surfacing near the Falkland Islands at midnight and buzzing them at fifty feet to take pictures, flying 12 ½ miles off Cuba monitoring their SAM sites, etc., etc.) I generally had a crew of about 20 working two shifts in the intelligence section, tape recording radio communications simultaneously on about 15 frequencies, monitoring radar screens and other electronic devices, measuring our potential enemies’ radar and missile defense envelopes, among other things. But after the Cuban missile crisis ended, such reconnaissance had become almost a game between us and the Russians. Who could best demonstrate that he had outfoxed the other? Many boring hours of data collection ensued, important in the aggregate, but no single mission worth a casualty. These missions were similar to the one that caused Bush’s first international crisis on April 1, 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet ran into a Navy EP-3 doing recon in the South China Sea 7O miles off Hainan Island. The EP-3 was heavily damaged, lost its radome (I lost one once, accidentally bombing the North Atlantic with a radar dish 16 feet in diameter), busted a prop, knocked out two engines, went almost inverted (not where you want to be in a 4-engine aircraft) and dropped from 22,000 to 8,000 feet before regaining control and making a miraculous emergency landing on Hainan while destroying most of their secret equipment and data before being captured. That pilot, Shane Osborne, despite some dickheads who criticized him, was a hero who saved his crew and rightfully was awarded a DFC. The 24 crewman were held for 11 days on Hainan and then released, not tortured for 11 months like the Koreans treated the Pueblo crew. The U.S. issued a statement of regret for the incident and sorrow for the dead Chinese pilot, but did not apologize in negotiating a peaceful release of the crew (although we did agree to pay China for dismantlement of the aircraft and its shipment home). The ramming of our EP-3 was an obvious accident by an incompetent, hot dog Chinese pilot trying to show off. A couple of days before he had buzzed the EP-3 while holding up to his cockpit window a piece of cardboard with an email address on it.

Why do I mention all of this? For about one year during some of the missions I referred to above I shared hours in the cockpit with my flight engineer, an ADR 1/C who was in charge of the enlisted crew when we were on the ground around the world in many, many countries. He transferred to our sister squadron VQ-1, the one with 4 EC-121’s flying the Pacific. On April 15, 1969, the year after I left the Navy ( I was still in graduate school), 90 miles off the coast of North Korea, his unarmed aircraft was shot down by two Korean Migs with 31 Americans aboard. The aircraft had carried an extra 9 personnel for training purposes that day It was absolute murder. His squadron had been flying a lazy 150 mile orbit over international waters off North Korea almost every day for months before the Migs were sent to shoot them down. It was all witnessed on US Air Force radar in Japan. It also happened to be Kim II Sung’s 57th birthday. Two bodies were eventually recovered. Compared to the Pueblo crisis it was treated as if it were nothing. Less than a full column in the New York Times day one; a half column on page 7 on day 2; page 13 on day 3; and then pretty much forgotten. No retaliation. Korea got away with it scot free.  The USA did not want another crisis.EC-121

Artist rendering of the shootdown of the aircraft by two North Korean MIGS.  It was identified as a Navy EC-121, four engine, propeller driven aircraft loaded with sophisticated intelligence gathering equipment.


Some laugh at the supposed ridiculousness of North Korea’s current threats, but these are some of the reasons why I think we should take them seriously. I am as against war mongering as anyone can be , but If we don’t have alert aircraft today in Japan ready to launch in 3 minutes if North Korea commences mischief, we are making a giant mistake. And if we do not have their nuke locations targeted and with the ability to take them out in a matter of hours, we may live to regret it.

I welcome your comments

Thanks for stopping by. – VS






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