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November/December 2023 -   -  

At the Brink Along the DMZ

The Largely Unknown 'Second Korean Conflict' Played Out in the Shadow of the Vietnam War

Our understanding of the Vietnam War conjures up intense imagery: young American troops disembarking from Huey gunships into hot LZs, grunts trudging through rice paddies in deep valleys embarking on search-and-destroy missions, and men eagerly awaiting their return to the confines of firebases. That was the Vietnam War that took place throughout South Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and on the South China Sea.

In stark contrast, it’s a good bet that very few Americans remember a low-intensity conflict that transpired over valleys and mountains 2,000 miles away, yet was inextricably linked to it : the Second Korean Conflict, which spanned the mid-1960s to mid-1970s.

American troops of the 1st Bn., 38th Infantry of the 2nd Infantry Division dismount from a truck to begin a day's work during the daily tensions of potential combat in the Demilitarized Zone on December 15, 1967.

Many might recall North Korea’s January 23, 1968, capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo in the Sea of Japan and the subsequent year-long abuse and torture of its crew after one was killed in action. However, that incident was swiftly and thoroughly overshadowed by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive.

On the other hand, few people are aware of the North Korean axe murders of two U.S. Army officers at Panmunjom inside the DMZ in August 1976, which almost re-ignited the Korean War and potentially even more extensive conflicts.

An American MP standing guard beside a U.S. Army Vehicle that was ambushed by the North Koreans near Panmunjom on April 14, 1968. Two American and two South Korean troops were killed in the attack.

Striking Parallels  

There are many striking parallels between what happened in Korea and Vietnam during the 20th century. Both countries endured significant occupations and wars, including the Japanese occupation of both lands, the Korean War, the French Indochina War, and the American war in Vietnam. Both countries were bisected, north and south, under foreign directives, with demilitarized zones separating them. Planned elections for reunification never transpired in either country. This symmetry was not accidental; the 1954 Geneva Conference following France’s defeat in Vietnam aimed for a settlement in that country echoing the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement.

Under the guise of civil unrest, North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh maintained military pressure on the South. His North Korean counterpart, President Kim Il Sung, who never accepted the Korean War’s outcome, pursued a similar trajectory. While President Lyndon Johnson increased the U.S. military’s commitment to protect South Vietnam in the mid-1960s, he resolutely preserved the Korean peninsula’s status quo, despite escalating military provocations by the North Koreans.

Army pallbearers carrying the flag-draped casket of Sgt. Paul W. Martin of Waldron, Arkansas, during a memorial service at Kimpo Air Base in Seoul on January 29, 1968. Martin, 21, was killed on January 24 when he and another soldier tried to stop the remnants of a 31-man North Korean commando unit trying to slip back across the DMZ after an assassination attempt on South Korean President Park Chung Hee in Seoul.

Heightened Tensions in the mid-sixties  

Preserving peace in Korea hinged on the effective management of a 150-mile-long, two-and-a-half-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone established along the precise battle lines of the July 27, 1953, Armistice signing. It was multifaceted, including a Military Demarcation Line defining the physical border between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea. Although intended to be a space for peaceful discussions and resolutions, the DMZ often served as a platform for propaganda.

By the 1960s, U.S. troops from the 7th Infantry and 1st Cavalry Divisions were guarding the western third of the DMZ, primarily to defend Seoul. Although skirmishes between North and South Korea persisted post-Armistice, tensions escalated in 1962, when Korean People’s Army guerrillas crossed the DMZ, which resulted in the deaths of five U.S. troops.

The decision in 1965 to deploy 50,000 ROK Forces to South Vietnam, significantly reducing their presence in Korea, set the stage for heightened tensions. It’s unclear if Kim Il Sung’s intention was to exploit the reduced ROK presence in Korea or to draw them back, aiding his Vietnamese communist allies. Both scenarios had potential benefits for North Korea.

As the Vietnam War intensified, many American troops stationed in Korea believed they were fortunate to be far from the fighting. This perception changed drastically on November 2, 1966, when North Korean guerrillas ambushed and killed six Americans.

Ironically, this ambush came on the same night President Johnson was in Seoul. His response to the incident was telling: He viewed the skirmish in Korea as secondary to the ongoing conflict in Vietnam.

Enter Gen. Charles Bonesteel, who took charge of the 8th U.S. Army in the fall of 1968. He studied North Korea’s strategy of unconventional warfare and orchestrated a layered defense of the DMZ.

Throughout 1967, North Korea’s audacity and the severity of its operations in South Korea grew. The most dramatic event occurred on January 21, 1968, during what became known as the Blue House Raid, as 31 commandos attempted to assassinate ROK President Park Chung Hee in Seoul. They failed, and the massive manhunt that ensued resulted in the death of all but two of the commandos.

In the wake of several operational failures, Kim started shifting strategies. One major event in 1969 was the shooting down of a USAF EC-121M Constellation surveillance plane by North Korean MiGs, killing all 31 Americans onboard. Confrontations along the DMZ persisted through 1971.

In 1972, Kim simultaneously initiated a so-called “peace offensive” and covert construction of tunnels beneath the DMZ. Peace talks faltered the next year and by 1974, the first of the tunnels was discovered. The August 1976 Panmunjom incident brought both sides to the brink of war, but tensions slowly de-escalated.

During the “Second Korean War,” U.S. forces sustained 91 KIA and 111 WIA, while combined North and South Korean casualties exceeded 4,500.

There is no doubt that, while incidents and fighting never escalated to a full-scale war, the Vietnam War and Korea were intrinsically linked in the geopolitical landscape. Their combined narratives illustrate the intricacies and dangers of Cold War conflicts and the stakes involved in maintaining peace and stability in the region.

VVA member Michael Witmer served as a Medical Corpsman with the U.S. Army’s 1/5th Field Artillery in the 2nd Infantry Division on the Korean DMZ in 1972-73.




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