As President Trump prepares for a possible meeting with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, many American are raising warnings that North Korea has walked away from previous arms agreements. But those skeptics should remember that it was the United States, in 1958, that broke the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, when the Eisenhower administration sent the first atomic weapons into South Korea.
By the mid-1960s, the United States had more than 900 nuclear artillery shells, tactical bombs, surface-to-surface rockets and missiles, antiaircraft missiles and nuclear land mines in South Korea. Even nuclear projectiles for DavyCrockett recoilless rifles were for several years based in South Korea.
The presence of those American weapons probably motivated the North Koreans to accelerate development of their own nuclear weapons. Although all the tactical United States nuclear weapons were removed from South Korea in 1991, the Seoul government still remains under the American nuclear umbrella — and the impetus for Kim Jong-un to have his own remains, as it did for his father and grandfather.
However, declassified United States documents describe in detail how the Eisenhower administration, worried about the cost of defending South Korea and the prowess of North Korea’s Chinese-backed military, agreed to send tactical nuclear weapons systems to South Korea. In return, the administration was hoping to get the Joint Chiefs of Staff to support reducing the number of American and South Korean troops on the peninsula that the United States was financing, at a cost of about $650 million a year for the Korean troops alone.
Planning to send the atomic weapons to South Korea began in 1956. A Nov. 28, 1956, meeting involving Defense and State Department officials was titled “Defense proposal to authorize the introduction of ‘Honest John’ and the 280 millimeter gun in Korea,” according to a declassified memorandum.
Three days later, the American Embassy in South Korea proposed announcing the arrival of the atomic-capable weapons, saying the news was “bound to become public knowledge.” The United Nations Command agreed, and at a news conference in Seoul on Jan. 28, 1958, the arrival of the atomic-capable weapons was announced. A United States Army spokesman refused to say how many cannons arrived and whether they were accompanied by atomic warheads. It was a two-paragraph story on page 3 of The New York Times.
Since then, Americans have forgotten this history and American politicians have only blamed North Korea for undermining arms agreements. Pyongyang has indeed been unreliable; but its leaders recall what happened in the 1950s, having spent 33 years facing American nuclear weapons just across the border in South Korea.
The United States does not come to any future talks with totally clean hands. Both sides have reasons to adopt Ronald Reagan’s advice: “Trust, but verify.”
Read more at The Dirty Secret of American Nuclear Arms in Korea