The EC-121 Shoot Down and North Korea’s Coercive Theory of Victory

On April 15, 1969, North Korea shot down an American EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft. The incident has special meaning in the history of US-North Korea relations.



The EC-121 attack, which killed all 31 passengers on board, was the most aggressive action North Korea has ever taken against the United States outside of the Korean War. Despite being a well-documented case of North Korea’s use of violence against the United States, we lack consensus about many aspects of the incident. Was it a deliberate attack, or an accident? Was it an anomaly, or part of the broader pattern of North Korean violence? And was its purpose mostly tactical (defending its airspace) or strategic (forcing a change in either US policy or that of China and the Soviet Union)?


Historians, at one time or another, have posited each of the above. Bernd Schaefer reflected in 2004 that “until further evidence is unearthed, Pyongyang’s rationale [for the EC-121 shoot down] remains unclear.” We remain at an impasse.


In today’s national security agenda, there is a pressing need to understand North Korea’s “theory of victory”—a term that broadly characterizes what North Korea believes is necessary and sufficient to deter adversaries, secure political goals, and control escalation in a crisis. Why? Even if North Korea seeks only survival, the important thing for regional stability and war-avoidance is to understand what the North Korean leadership believes about military signaling and “the diplomacy of violence” (to borrow Thomas Schelling). Even if North Korea has minimalist, defensive goals—which is debatable—it may still believe that the best defense is a good offense. And even if the DPRK seeks a diplomatic solution to its geopolitical insecurity, it may believe violence is a useful adjunct to its diplomatic strategy, as the United States once did during its failed coercive bombing of Vietnam.


Two newly released documents from the Soviet archives give us a chance to take stock of what we know about the EC-121 attack itself and, by extension, what that incident says about North Korea’s “theory of victory.”


What the Archives Say


Both documents capture meetings between North Korea and the Soviet Union on the day following the EC-121 attack, April 16, 1969. The first involved Heo Dam, North Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister, with Soviet Ambassador to the DPRK N. Sudarikov. The second involved Pak Seong-Cheol, North Korea’s Foreign Minister and Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers, who also met with Ambassador Sudarikov.


The two documents bear directly on the question of North Korea’s “theory of victory” vis-à-vis the United States. Heo Dam repeated an oft-heard refrain from Kim Il Sung that North Korea is “ready to respond to retaliation with retaliation, and total war with total war.” Heo also implied that the larger purpose of the EC-121 shoot down was the same as the capture of the USS Pueblo the year prior: “they [the Americans] have not drawn the proper lessons from the incident with the Pueblo.” That action, as a previous Sources and Methods piece discusses, was an act of military coercion aimed at a fundamentally political purpose.


The Soviet Ambassador had a more revealing conversation with Pak Seong-Cheol after meeting with Heo. Pak also recalled comparisons to the Pueblo incident, claiming that “if the Americans had decided to fight then, we would have fought.” Pak further stated “we wage firefights with the Americans in the area of the 38th Parallel almost every day. When they shoot, we also shoot…But no special aggravation arises from this.”


When Pak was pressed on whether North Korea understood the escalation risks of using violence against the United States, he replied “we’ve also shot down American planes before, and similar incidents are also possible in the future…It’s good for them to know that we won’t sit with folded arms.” Clarifying further, Pak conveyed:


If we sit with folded arms when a violator intrudes into our spaces, two planes will appear tomorrow, then four, five, etc. This would lead to an increase of the danger of war. But if a firm rebuff is given, then this will diminish the danger of an outbreak of war. When the Americans understand that there is a weak enemy before them they will start a war right away. If, however, they see that there is a strong partner before them, this delays the beginning of a war.


What It All Means


Each of the above statements directly address North Korea’s beliefs about force, deterrence, and compellence.


Pak Seong-cheol showed a firm belief in reciprocal, automatic violence when attacked, on the grounds that failing to retaliate will cause one to suffer future attacks. When he claimed that small attacks like the EC-121 shoot down help prevent general war, he was arguing that small acts of violence establish general deterrence; they are the “real” reason the United States does not invade. He believed, like Heo Dam, that the EC-121 shoot down would not lead to US retaliation because past similar attacks did not. The documents show Pak and Heo drawing inferences about the US unwillingness to retaliate from the latter’s handling of the Pueblo crisis the year prior.


In short, then, these documents reveal that North Korea believes provoking and attacking at lower levels of violence pays off at higher levels. They also reveal that North Korea, if attacked, will automatically reciprocate—generating a conflict spiral—because to do otherwise would bring on war anyway. Insofar as we can infer from these documents, North Korea’s theory of victory values offensive action and is highly reputational, as I argue in my own research on US-North Korea crisis bargaining. North Korea also makes inferences about the United States based on past actions and believes that the United States will make inferences based on past actions as well.


Follow the link to see the source article published by the Wilson Center April 13, 2017.

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