Monday, November 28, 2005

November 5, 1979 archives: Assassination in Seoul

This would be a very good piece to read before seeing "The President's Last Bang" (그때 그사람들).

Assassination in Seoul
The killing of President Park raises questions and tensions

It was one of the most bizarre killings of a head of state in history. Late last week President Park Chung Hee, 61, strongman ruler of the Republic of South Korea since 1961, was shot at a dinner party by the chief of his own intelligence service in what was first described by a government spokesman as an "accident." Later, officials revealed that it was a well-planned assassination.

Within hours of the shocking event, the South Korean Cabinet went into emergency session. Former Premier Choi Kyu Hah, who took over as Acting President, announced that most of the country had been placed under martial law. All 39,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea were put on alert. Early this week South Korea was calm, and most of the soldiers and tanks that had been patrolling Seoul had returned to barracks.

In both Seoul and Washington there was apprehension about the future of South Korea. There were plenty of questions. Who would replace Park, a dependable if politically unappealing friend of the West? Would his death inspire North Korea to launch an invasion of the South, which could lead to a wider war? Although the government seemed to be functioning smoothly, was there still the possibility of a coup? To none of these questions were there reassuring answers.

On the morning of his death, Park had traveled to Tangjin, 100 miles south of Seoul, to inaugurate a three-mile-wide irrigation dam. In a sense, it was a fitting site for his last public appearance. After 18 years as a virtual dictator, Park had left his country a legacy of political repression but also of extraordinary development (see box). After the ceremony, Park and his entourage—including his ever-present five-man plainclothes guard—returned to Seoul; he spent the rest of the afternoon in his office in the Blue House, South Korea's presidential mansion. At around 6 p.m., Park went to dine with some close associates at a small house connected with the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, inside the Blue House compound.

The host was KCIA Director Kim Jae Kyu, 53. He is a former general and, as one diplomat who knew both men well put it, "a close, long-term chum and adviser in whom Park had a lot of confidence." The other guests were Park's chief security officer, Cha Chi Chul, an even closer adviser, and Park's staff secretary-general, Kim Kae Won.

Park's bodyguards ushered the President to the dining room, then prepared to cool their heels outside. The dining room was small, only 12 by 10½ ft. The four companions arranged themselves around the large, round central table; Park sat at the head, across from Kim Kae Won. The host was on Park's left, with his back to the door, directly across the table from Cha. Scotch whisky flowed freely.

According to the official account, a fierce argument erupted between the intelligence chief and Cha. Kim, a relative moderate, made a last-minute plea to Park to ease his harsh treatment of unruly dissidents. Cha chided Kim for his softness. At about 6:50 p.m., said a high government investigator, Kim left the dining room to meet two co-conspirators and told them, "I will finish them off tonight, so when you hear the gunshots inside, finish off the presidential bodyguard outside.''

Next Kim climbed the stairs to his own office, stuck a pistol in his waistband and returned to the dining room. He listened silently while Cha lambasted him.

He left the room again and spoke with his aides yet another time. Five minutes later, he returned to the table, pulled the .38 revolver and, according to the government investigator, ''cursed, fired the first shot at Cha and then fired at Park.''

Park was hit three times; one bullet struck him in the chest, penetrating to the spine, at least one other in the head. Cha was mortally wounded. Hearing the first shot, five KCIA agents armed with pistols and an M-16 automatic rifle rushed in and gunned down three of Park's bodyguards waiting in the kitchen and two others in another room. They killed four and wounded the fifth.

It was not clear what the killers wanted to accomplish or whom—and what—they wanted to follow Park. But according to government investigators, Kim was afraid he might lose his job as KCIA chief because Park no longer trusted his judgment. Reportedly, a faction in the intelligence agency also had come to believe that Park could no longer govern effectively and that he had ruled too long.

It was an open secret in Seoul that there had been bad blood between Cha and Kim, who resented Cha's growing influence on Park. Kim had been criticized for the KCIA'S failure to predict swelling opposition. Then, when he tried to counsel Park to be more conciliatory, he was overruled.

After Park was shot, Secretary-General Kim Kae Won carried the dying President out to his car and, at 7:55, reached a nearby hospital. Park was pronounced dead on arrival. The assassin, meanwhile, drove himself to army headquarters and surrendered; five co-conspirators were soon arrested and the government reported ''many others'' were taken for questioning. Meanwhile, the Cabinet was called into emergency session; as prescribed by the constitution, Premier Choi, a loyal Park administrator, was named Acting President. The army Chief of Staff, General Chung Seung Hwa, was placed in charge of martial law; he immediately ordered a nighttime curfew and press censorship. South Korea's 200 universities and colleges were closed, and a division of troops was moved into the Seoul area against possible disorders.

As the city came to life in the morning, there were neither grieving crowds nor rejoicing students, but the streets were decked with black streamers and passers-by stopped to read the shocking headlines.

Not until 10 a.m. did Choi address the country on radio and TV. ''This is a time for all 37 million Korean people to stay calm and do their best to preserve our country for our survival,'' he said. ''Our armed forces have gone on alert to guard against any North Korean moves.''

The first word reached Washington, via a "secure line" telephone call to Presidential Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski from Ambassador William Gleysteen. After alerting President Carter, Brzezinski summoned a meeting of the Special Coordination Committee, whose members include Defense Secretary Harold Brown, Army Chief of Staff General Edward Meyer, CIA Deputy Director Frank Carlucci and Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

The U.S. response, it was decided, would have to demonstrate a readiness to repel any North Korean adventurism, but without any provocative overdramatization. All U.S. units in South Korea, including the Second Infantry Division and the 72 F-4 fighters of the 8,000-man Air Force detachment, were put on a "defense condition 3" level of alert, two notches below a red alert. The Pentagon sent the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk toward a South Korean port and rushed two Airborne Warning and Control planes to the area to monitor North Korean military movements. U.S. diplomats in Peking and Moscow urged the Chinese and Soviets to use their influence to restrain North Korea. Washington also warned North Korea that the U.S. would "react strongly in accordance with its treaty obligations to any external attempt to exploit the situation.''

The tough North Korean army—80,-000 stronger than South Korea's—is deployed behind the entire 151-mile Demilitarized Zone, just 30 miles north of Seoul.

For years there have been increasing fears that Kim II Sung, 67, North Korea's self-appointed ''great and beloved leader,'' might try once more to fulfill his lifelong dream of reuniting the peninsula by conquest. The crisis in the South seemed just the sort of opportunity that might tempt him to gamble on an American lack of resolve.

If North Korean divisions came pouring across the DMZ, the U.S. would almost automatically become involved in another Korean war. At worst, U.S. strategists envision a wider Korean conflict leading to a superpower confrontation between China and the Soviet Union.

Kim II Sung has played one off against the other, to keep from being dominated by either while drawing maximum support from both. If it looked as though U.S. forces were about to drive him back to the Yalu River, the Soviets might be tempted to venture a salvage action—which could provoke Chinese counterintervention.

The tense but orderly aftermath to Park's death appeared to present a solid front against any North Korean taste for adventure. In one sense Park's death could not have been more untimely: the country has been troubled by new outbreaks of unrest. South Korea's economic boom has brought not only prosperity, but also a fresh appetite for long-denied political freedoms. Last month the new tensions between Park's authoritarianism and the hunger for reform erupted in an open revolt by Park's political opposition and an explosion of student riots.

Always impatient with parliamentary processes, Park appeared to regard them at best as a necessary nuisance. He provoked the recent troubles with a highhanded abuse of the virtually absolute powers he held under the 1972 constitution. He had conducted a repressive vendetta against Kim Young Sam, head of the opposition New Democratic Party. Kim incurred Park's wrath by defying a 1975 decree against criticizing the government. The opposition leader publicly called Park's regime "basically dictatorial" and urged the U.S. to "pressure" Park into granting long-denied human rights. Park ordered his tame majority in the 231 -member National Assembly to expel Kim. Overnight, the 69 other opposition members angrily resigned from the assembly in protest.

Outrage at Kim's expulsion quickly spread to the volatile university campuses. Following a series of antigovernment rallies, major riots erupted in the southern port city of Pusan. More than 3,000 students, joined by older demonstrators, charged through the streets, attacking government buildings. A total of 73 policemen were injured, and scores of demonstrators arrested. The protests spread to the industrial city of Masan. Park responded with a crackdown—ordering virtual martial law in both cities.

The rioting shook longstanding Western confidence in the stability of Park's regime. When Defense Secretary Brown visited Seoul two weeks ago, he brought with him a letter of rebuke from Carter, protesting Park's repression of human rights.

Washington's main worry now is who will succeed Park, and what the new President will stand for. According to the constitution—which foreign observers believe will be honored by the interim government—the 2,583-member National Conference of Unification, which is a kind of electoral college, must meet within 90 days and choose a President. Observers in Seoul very much doubt that Park's successor will be Acting President Choi, a bureaucrat who seems to have neither the stature nor the following for the job.

One name on many tongues is Kim Jong Pil, 53, the first director of the KCIA and the husband of Park's niece.

He served as Premier from 1971 to 1975, but then more or less dropped out of politics, apparently disenchanted with Park.

Another possibility is Chung II Kwon, 61, the much decorated first four-star general (retired); his distinguished career includes terms of service as Foreign Minister, Premier and speaker of the assembly.

Both men are considered pro-Western antiCommunists, who will carry on Park's foreign policies. Especially now, they could both be expected to lobby even more strongly than Park did against any further withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. And in either case, a more liberal regime could well emerge in response to the new opposition pressures. Neither of the possible leaders, of course, was making a move while the country mourned its fallen President.

''The wheeling and dealing won't start until after the funeral,'' said one senior political figure. ''But then there is an awful lot to get settled.'' For Seoul, that was probably the understated judgment of the year.

1 comment:

  1. An good article which helps focus on the immediate concerns which arose after Park's exit. It's also interesting what was left out (or reported incorrectly). For example, ambassador Glysteen, in his book, makes clear that Kim Jae-gyu did not immediately turn himself in, as the article suggests. He only did so 4 hours later, when Kim Gye-won, the only other (male) witness, fingered him. Considering that Kim Gye-won's delay in sharing this information helped paralyze the government for hours at a rather critical time, and that during that time Kim Jae-gyu was calling for full (as opposed to partial) martial law (which would have given him more control), it's not exactly an inconsequential fact.

    The Time article also fails to bring up the two women who were present at the party, interesting considering the fact that one of them was a famous singer whose signature song often conjures up memories of the assassination for those (Koreans) who lived through 'that time.' Did Time think Americans didn't need to know about Park 'entertaining' young women? Or was there just a lack of space?


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