The United States sent two airborne command post planes and an aircraft carrier task force toward the strifetorn Korean peninsula yesterday as high government officials pondered next steps in dealing with a potential explosive South Korean political crisis.
The two airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, dispatched to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, and the aircraft carrier Coral Sea, moving toward Korean waters from the Philippines, were intended to underscore a State Department warning to North Korea that the United States will "react strongly in accordance with its treaty obligations to any external attempt to exploit the situation" in South Korea.
Officials said there is no indication of an impending threat or action by North Korea in the current crisis. The U.S. deeds and warnings were described as precautionary measures so that there can be no misunderstanding in Pyongyang and no apprehension in Seoul or elsewhere in Asia about U.S. resolve in case of North Korean challenge.
The main problem at the moment -- and the principal focus of a high-level White House meeting yesterday -- was the danger of continuing political unrest within South Korea as a group of dominant generals exercises increasingly strong control over domestic decisions there.
The State Department statement, issued in advance of the White House meeting, called on "all parties involved" in the civil strife "to exercise maximum restraint and undertake a dialogue in search of peaceful settlement." The statement also said the United States will urge all parties, "when calm has been restored," to seek means of resuming the program of political liberalization that was cast in doubt by the military takeover of the country under martial law.
Among the questions under study is to what extent the apparent strongman, Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan, has the support of a broad spectrum of the military and other leadership in the strategy and tactics of the latest crackdown. It is also unclear to what extent Chon and other generals are amenable to pleas for moderation from Washington or any other source.
The Korean generals, in an apparent effort to avoid a repetition of December's dispute over the sudden diversion of Korean military forces nominally under joint U.S. and Korean command, have asked and obtained U.S. permission to use four regiments of general-reserve troops for riot-control duty.
Despite the presence of 39,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and massive U.S. investments there, the usable American leverage in the current fast-moving situation is modest, in the view of Washington officials. For example, the once-large U.S. aid program to Korea has dwindled to $30 million in food and $127 million in military credit sales this year.
The main U.S. leverage, a State Department official said, is the appeal to the self-interest of the Korean leadership in continuing close and cooperative relationships with the United States in military, political, economic and diplomatic areas.
The 75-minute White House meeting yesterday was the first interagency deliveration of this sort to be chaired by Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, according to official sources. One reported outcome was the resolve that the government should "speak with one voice" in the Korea crisis so that forces abroad as well as the public at home not be confused by conflicting official views and interpretations of policy, as in some recent foreigh policy episodes.
Korea session was in the forum of a "policy review committee" (PRC), a subgroup of the National Security Council that deals with continuing and often longterm policy questions. A PRC meeting is usually chaired by the senior representative of the State Department or other department most directly involved, in contrast to the crisis-handling sub-unit of the NSC, the "special coordination committee," which is chaired by the president's national security affairs adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
One of the decisions made in the May 2-3 Camp David meetings of President Carter, Muskie, Brzezinski and other senior advisers was to give greater emphasis to State Department-chaired policy meetings, with their more complete staff work and option papers, and to de-emphasize crisis meetings chaired by Brzezinski.
For this reason, officials said, the crisis committee of the NSC has met about twice a week in recent weeks rather than daily as it did most of the time since the taking of the U.S. hostages in Iran Nov. 4.
At the same time, future policy in Iran, as well as U.S. relations with Liberia, Argentina and now Korea, has been addressed in the "policy review committee," sources said.