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A "Korean Solution" For Vietnam?

Bad History and Worse Policy

Senator Hugh Scott, Republican Minority Leader, revealed Administration long-range thinking in little noticed testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 4. While defending the Administration's Vietnam policy, Scott conceded that American troops would probably remain in Vietnam after "Vietnamization." He asserted that if our troops are indefinitely required in Vietnam, the public would support that decision, adding that the people's judgment would "surmount the hysteria of a limited number of critics." He noted that the American people accepted the continuing presence of 50,000 (sic) troops in South Korea 17 years after the Korean War ended.

The strategy of a "Korean Solution for Vietnam" rests upon a judgment that the cost in dollars and US casualties of a "residual force" in South Vietnam for 10-20 years will be tolerable to the Congress and the American people, that the military and political situation in South Vietnam is similar to that of South Korea in the early 1950s, and that the results of the armistice in Korea were sufficiently satisfactory to serve as a model for ending the Vietnam War and for postwar policy. Led into the Indochina war by a spurious analogy with World War II - "Ho Chi-Minh equals Hitler, Vietnam equals Munich"--the public is now offered a far-fetched comparison with the Korean War to explain how we will get out.

To review the record in Korea, in July 1953 the United States, acting for the United Nations, negotiated an armistice with North Korea and Communist China that ended three years of fighting. A Demilitarized Zone was created across Korea, along existing battle lines, as a buffer against renewed fighting or subversive infiltration. The armistice settlement has been effective militarily, i.e., no large-scale fighting  has occurred since 1953.

Proponents of the "Korea Solution for Vietnam" note that since 1953 South Korea has increased its security vis-a-vis the North, attained political stability, achieved impressive economic growth in recent years and become a steadfast ally of the US: what more could anyone want? For Vietnam they see first a de facto armistice if negotiations fail, then a period of economic and political recovery, guaranteed by a US "residual force," and finally the emergence of an "independent," non-communist ally.

 The Administration is moving toward a "Korea. Solution for Vietnam." But is the South Korean experience applicable to South Vietnam? Should the Korean formula be applied to Indochina?

American casualties and the level of violence in South Vietnam will hinge upon the rate of infiltration and the possibility of renewed local insurgency during and after "Vietnamization." A comparison of the key factors in the South Korean and South Vietnamese situations suggests more dissimilarity than analogy.

South Korea, the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, has no common borders with any other state except North Korea; it is surrounded on three sides by water. Its closest neighbor, Japan, is economically strong, politically stable and an ally of the US. South Korea was able to use the armistice to recover from the Korean War in relative isolation, thanks to the stability of Northeast Asia, free from concern about or interference by adjacent states.

South Vietnam shares a 900-mile common border with Laos and Cambodia, both areas of endemic conflict and political instability. Disguised US operations in Laos and the overt invasion of Cambodia have both been justified for "the security of South Vietnam." President Thieu's determination to continue military operations in Cambodia indicates an endless military adventure there even before a military settlement in South Vietnam. Laos and Cambodia face decades of bitter civil war and foreign intervention; it is not likely that they will allow South Vietnam to be a sanctuary.

South Korea is a land of craggy, often denuded mountains and rice-producing valleys. There are no impenetrable jungles, no mangrove swamps, no dense forests - no terrain features hospitable to an insurgent movement. Severe winter weather naturally defoliates the underbrush, without help from the US Army or Air Force, especially near the DMZ; it is impossible to survive without warm shelter and protection. Guerrillas or infiltrators cannot move freely or live off the land. Infiltration from North Korea must be crowded into the spring and summer months.

South Vietnamese terrain and climate, by contrast, offer a guerrilla movement a compatible environment in all seasons. Tropical rain forests, marshy swamp areas and rugged, overgrown mountains afford natural havens to rural insurgents. A benign climate, tropical in the Mekong delta and moderate in the central lowlands and mountains, keeps the undergrowth verdant and allows guerrillas to live off the land, even under the land, year-round. Infiltration and guerrilla activity are not seasonal in South Vietnam.

Despite a flurry of serious incidents in 1967-68, infiltration from the North has not been a serious problem for South Korea. There are only two infiltration routes: on foot, across the heavily fortified DMZ, right at US and ROK frontline units, or by boat, by secret landing on South Korea's lengthy but well patrolled coastline. South Korea's natural protection against infiltration has been supplemented by alert, tough and experienced security agencies - the National Police and the ROK Central Intelligence Agency and military counterintelligence - ample funding and modern equipment and, most importantly, a rural population that invariably reports North Korean agents to the authorities.

According to United Nations' statistics, there were only 59 serious infiltration incidents in 1965, 50 in 1966. In 1967, in apparent response to South Korea's deeper involvement in South Vietnam, North Korea began a campaign of terror, the dispatch of armed guerrilla units with the mission "to establish bases in the South," and harassment of US and ROK units along the DMZ. Serious incidents rose to 566. In early 1968 a North Korean commando unit made a spectacular attempt to assassinate President Park, the most dramatic violation of the armistice agreement to date. Shocked by the attack on President Park, South Korea, with extensive US assistance, moved swiftly in 1968 to improve and adjust its defenses. The government obtained modern equipment, organized a Homeland Reserve Force of over two million men and put the entire country on alert. By mid-1969 these countermeasures had paid off; North Korea found the new tactics too costly in personnel and unsuccessful. The dispatch of commando units was curtailed and serious incidents tapered off.

North Korea's increased infiltration did not even hurt the "investment climate"; South Korea continued to attract foreign capital. While irritating, infiltration poses no threat to South Korean security or even public safety. There have been far more bombings in Seattle and New York in the last year than in all South Korea since 1953. After three years of intensively trying for a "Vietcong solution for South Korea," North Korea's tactics have ended in failure.

But North Vietnam, Secretary of Defense McNamara testified in 1967, was able to infiltrate up to 5000 men a month despite the heaviest bombing attacks in history. Operating through trails in Laos and Cambodia, or across the DMZ, under cover of dense jungle underbrush, North Vietnam as late as January 1970 was estimated to be moving 10,000 men and vast supplies south every month. Unlike Korea, where in most cases infiltrators have been individuals or 2-3 man groups. North Vietnam has moved regular army units - entire regiments - into South Vietnam at will. According to US military estimates, there are 21 North Vietnamese regiments operating in the five northernmost provinces alone. All US efforts at interdiction at the borders - McNamara's Line announced in 1967, Special Forces' camps, reconnaissance units of mountain tribesmen, an arsenal of electronic listening and spotting devices - have failed to halt the southward movement. To restrict infiltration at present levels after "Vietnamization" would require an estimated 200,000 troops and up to $1 billion in sensitive US electronic equipment. South Vietnam lacks both the troops for border duty and the trained technical personnel to operate the costly anti-infiltration network. By rough comparison, more North Vietnamese move into South Vietnam in any two month period than North Koreans have infiltrated into South Korea in the 17 years since the Korean armistice.

The Korean War began with an overt, full-scale invasion across defined boundaries, was fought by professional armies and involved the rural population only as casualties, draftees or refugees. No rural-based insurgent movement held control of any part of the countryside, established an administrative organization, or gained widespread popular support before 1950. One serious communist uprising on Cheju Island was crushed in 1948; other dissident attempts were quickly controlled by the government. At the time of the 1953 armistice the South Korean government faced no organized, embittered, determined, potential insurgency movement in the countryside. On the contrary, the farming population was relieved at the end of the fighting, appreciative of United Nations' support and assistance and responsive to anti-communists. The rural population settled down to recover from the war and, despite real poverty and distress, has remained immune to North Korean blandishments.

In South Vietnam, Saigon governments over the years, long before infiltration from the North began, have been fighting against a rural insurrection based in South Vietnam, the Vietcong. Large parts of South Vietnam have been under Vietcong control for years and the guerrillas have local roots and local support. Until 1965 South Vietnam was fighting a civil war against its own peasantry. The introduction of US forces and their tactics - massive infantry sweeps, search and destroy, terror shelling and bombing, relocation of the population into refugee camps and massacre - have taken a ghastly toll in the countryside. "Noncombatant" dropped from the military lexicon as women and young children fought against the South Vietnamese government and the US by placing deadly booby traps and providing intelligence information to the Vietcong and North Vietnamese.

Regardless of political developments in the Saigon elite and after five years of US intervention, the countryside of South Vietnam is full of maimed, dispossessed, embittered peasants who may be expected to support local insurgents. The legacy of this unprecedented violence against ordinary farmers and their families is likely to be a simmering, "scores-to-be-settled" unrest for years. Will the villagers of Mylai 4 report the Vietcong or North Vietnamese infiltrators to the authorities?

The ominous implications of a "Korea Solution for Vietnam" have been made clear recently in South Korea itself. Since 1953 the US has provided over $8 billion in economic military aid. To help maintain the armistice the US has placed atomic weapons in South Korea and kept two infantry divisions, air force units and support troops - currently 64,000 men - there in a semipermanent garrison force. The South Korean economic growth rate has averaged better than eight percent for the past several years and she is militarily strong enough to send over 50,000 troops to fight in Vietnam. Yet in May when the Administration announced that some US troops would be withdrawn from Korea, promising $1 billion in new arms to strengthen South Korea's military forces, the reaction was "anger, shock and seeming panic." An aide to President Park Chung Hee accused the United States of "a breach of international faith," and spoke of broken promises by President Johnson, Secretary of State Rusk and other high US officials.

President Park was more restrained a few days later, acknowledging his understanding of the Nixon Doctrine, but warning that "the continued presence of the United States troops is absolutely necessary until we have developed our own capability to cope successfully with North Korea." Park estimated that US troops would be needed in South Korea at least until 1975.

In short-range, US policy objective terms. South Korea is a success story. Generous US aid, firm military defense, strong and capable South Korean economic and political leadership have paid off in terms of US policy and interests in Northeast Asia. And still, large numbers of US troops will be needed until 1975, a token force thereafter, a full 22 years after the armistice. To withdraw most of its troops, the US will have to provide the ROK armed forces, probably already the best in Asia, with another $1 billion in arms just to maintain the status quo in a non-war area. With all that done, the US will still have a token force of 5000 men in South Korea, still be responsible for air support and still have an obligation under the Mutual Defense Agreement to go to war in Korea again if North Korea attacks.

And success wasn't cheap. The Pentagon estimates the annual cost of one US division in South Korea at $500 million. Two divisions multiplied by 22 years (1953-1975) amounts to about $22 billion for the infantry part of the "residual force" in South Korea since 1953. The costs of support troops, Air Force units, occasionally losing a ship like the Pueblo, swell that figure. Until the size of the "residual force" in Vietnam emerges from the smokescreen of Pentagon secrecy and press agentry—estimates run from 20,000 to 150,000 —costs cannot be estimated. With the prospects of continued insurgency and high infiltration from the north, and the need for US ground combat operations and air support, the expenditures for a "residual force" in South Vietnam will be incomparably higher than in Korea. So will US casualties.

The cruelest deception of a "Korea Solution for Vietnam" is the notion that the "Korea Problem" itself was solved. The "Korea Solution" was no solution for Korea and will not be one for Vietnam. The "solution" in Korea was an expedient improvisation - even our ally, Syngman Rhee, bitterly opposed it in 1953 —which left unresolved the basic issues of the Korean civil war. Consider Korea 17 years after the stalemate: the small peninsula is divided into two benighted, unnatural political entities, each dependent upon foreign assistance. North and South waste their scarce resources in a mini-arms race. An entire generation, North and South, has come of age nurtured on hatred for their countrymen across the DMZ. Sustained hostility and the threat of renewed war has shaped societies where civil liberties have been curtailed or erased. Since the half-hearted effort at Geneva in 1954 there hasn't even been an attempt to solve the "Korea Problem" through negotiations. Instead, there is the non-solution of an armistice without political accommodation and the continued possibility that an incident in Korea—remember the Pueblo or the EC-121—may start a nuclear war. Glib assertions of a "Korea Solution for Vietnam" are bad history and worse policy. Talk of a "Korea Formula" masks an indefinite military and economic commitment to South Vietnam. The Korean experience indicates that there is no "Korea Solution" for Indochina, only an American solution: swift and irrevocable curtailment of American involvement.

This article originally appeared in the July 18, 1970 issue of the magazine