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US often weighed North Korea 'nuke option'

Associated Press - October 10, 2010

Charles J. Hanley & Randy Herschaft, New York From the 1950s' Pentagon to today's Obama administration, the United States has repeatedly pondered, planned and threatened to use nuclear weapons against North Korea, according to declassified and other US government documents released in this 60th-anniversary year of the Korean War.

Air Force bombers flew nuclear rehearsal runs over North Korea's capital during the war. The US military services later vied for the lead role in any "atomic delivery" over North Korea. In the late 1960s, nuclear-armed US warplanes stood by in South Korea on 15-minute alert to strike.

Just this past April, issuing a US Nuclear Posture Review, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said "all options are on the table" for dealing with Pyongyang meaning United States nuclear strikes were not ruled out.

The stream of new revelations about United States nuclear planning further fills in a picture of what North Korea calls "the increasing nuclear threat of the United States," which it cites as the reason it developed its own atom bomb program.

The new information is contained in Korean War documents released by the CIA to mark this June's anniversary of the start of the conflict.

Experts are speculating that North Korea, which conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, may soon stage another. Pyongyang's program "has now reached an extremely dangerous level," Kim Tae-hyo, a South Korean government security adviser, said.

In a report on global nuclear threats, analysts at Washington's Stimson Center identify six overt warnings by high-ranking American officials since 1976 that the United States would resort to nuclear weapons against North Korea if warranted.

But US threats go back more than a half-century, to long before North Korea split its first atom. In mid-August 1950, just weeks after North Korea invaded South Korea and five years after two US atomic bombs killed at least 220,000 Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, US nuclear weapons were assigned to the new war theater, according to a declassified Army planning document.

Retreating US and South Korean troops were then clinging to a last-ditch salient in Korea's southeast, from which they soon broke out in a counteroffensive that took them into North Korea.

That November, after Chinese troops joined in defending North Korea, then-President Harry Truman rattled the nuclear saber. "There has always been active consideration of its use."

Regional US commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur said he had a plan then to drop 30 to 50 atom bombs across the northern neck of the Korean peninsula, to block further Chinese intervention.

Based on previously declassified documents, however, historians believe the United States came closest to unleashing its atomic arsenal against North Korea in April 1951, on the eve of an expected Chinese offensive.

With Truman's OK, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered A-bomb retaliation if large numbers of fresh Chinese troops entered the fight. In the end, the US military repelled the Chinese push and the weapons were never used.

In September and October 1951, Air Force bombers conducted simulated atomic-bombing runs against Pyongyang, dropping dummy weapons on the North Korean capital, according to a newly obtained Army document corroborating earlier disclosures.

By early 1953, the United States, frustrated by stalled armistice talks, pondered launching a new offensive against the north Koreans and Chinese. The Pentagon's Air Staff recommended using A-bombs to achieve victory "in the shortest space of time," according to a Feb. 20, 1953, memo from the Air Force director of plans, Maj. Gen. Robert Lee.

On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed. Then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower would later credit the nuclear threat conveyed through back channels to Beijing for pressuring the Chinese into an agreement.

The nuclear planning did not stop with the fighting. On Aug. 20, 1953, declassified documents show, the Strategic Air Command sent Air Force headquarters a plan for "an air atomic offensive against China, Manchuria and North Korea" if the communists resumed hostilities.

In 1975, in response to a perceived North Korean threat of renewed war, President Gerald Ford's defense secretary, James Schlesinger, confirmed the presence of US nuclear weapons in South Korea for the first time, and warned North Korea, "I do not think it would be wise to test United States reactions."

President Jimmy Carter's administration later scaled back the Korea-based arsenal, and its complete withdrawal was announced in 1991.

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