The Case of South Korea

US and Korean attitudes towards one another are largely based on their understanding of the past relationship between the two countries. Far from being a "forgotten war," most Americans have an understanding that US forces fought and died on the Korean Peninsula in the 1950s. Their basic attitude towards Korea still has elements of protectiveness. They also know that Korea is an economic powerhouse and are familiar with Korean products. In sum, Americans today view the Republic of Korea as a success story of American foreign policy. Korean attitudes towards the United States, based on their understanding of history, are more complicated. Gratitude remains for the US sacrifices of the Korean War, particularly among the older generation, although patriotic organizations, and some movie makers, are trying to ensure that knowledge of the war is passed along to the younger population. Yet, there is a belief, particularly among progressives, that postwar US support for authoritarian figures including presidents Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee, and Chun Doo-hwan at the expense of the democratic development of Korea still matters. If the United States, indeed, sided at the time with conservative authoritarians against progressive democratic politicians, then it would be unsurprising if the latter’s descendants continued to believe that it was biased against them. This distrust could make policy cooperation more difficult between the US government and a future progressive Korean government.  

This article shows that the US government, although primarily interested in short-term political stability, was also committed from the beginning to Korea’s long-term democratic development, and was more interested in the overall welfare of Korea than it was in propping up any individual leader or party. This has relevance for today. An examination of previously classified documents can be corrective by telling us about long-term US attitudes and can serve as an antidote to both deep-seated misunderstanding and to short-term political moods. 

The Korea-Rhee Situation

From an American point of view, the first president of the Republic of Korea would seem to have been an ideal choice to lead the country through its first years. Syngman Rhee (the Americanization of his Korean name, Yi Seung-man) was imprisoned by Japanese authorities for his independence activities during Japan’s occupation of the peninsula, left for the United States in 1904, where he unsuccessfully urged President Theodore Roosevelt to back Korean independence, and was the first Korean to earn an American doctorate degree, a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1910. Altogether, he spent thirty-five years in the United States before being flown to Korea in a US military aircraft after the surrender of Japan in September 1945. He spoke fluent, idiomatic, English, was untainted by any association with Japanese occupation forces, and had spent his life tirelessly advocating Korean independence.1

Syngman Rhee was, however, also autocratic, capricious, inflexible, and corrupt in the eyes of his contemporaries.2 Rhee was politically controversial even in exile. He served as president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Exile from 1919 until 1925, when he was impeached over allegations of misuse of power. For all his flaws, he was a brave symbol of South Korea throughout the Korean War and was elected president by the National Assembly in July 1948 with 92.3% of the votes cast. Rhee cracked down on political opposition, detained and tortured those whom he deemed communist agents, and his regime was perceived as notoriously corrupt. In 1952, when it became apparent that he would lose reelection by the National Assembly, Rhee ordered the arrest of opposition figures and forced through an amendment to the Constitution to have the next election decided by popular vote, which he then won.

When Rhee resigned under popular pressure in 1960, President Eisenhower wrote to “Dear Dr. Rhee”: “With your voluntary withdrawal from political life, I am reminded even more strongly of how much your country will remain in your debt. The rebirth of Korea in 1945 was the fruition of your long years of patient and arduous labor. Your tenacity and indomitable courage…won the admiration of the entire Free World as well as the gratitude of all Koreans.”  In private, Eisenhower was less admiring. He commented years earlier: “It is almost hopeless to write about the Korea-Rhee situation…It is impossible to attempt here to recite the long list in which Rhee has been completely uncooperative, even recalcitrant…Rhee has been such an unsatisfactory ally that it is difficult indeed to avoid excoriating him in the strongest of terms.”

CIA Director Allen Dulles offered his view in a 1952 Intelligence Report: “President Rhee is old and feeble. He is highly nervous and moves from fits of great despondency to elation. His will is still powerful and he has three obsessions: (1) To continue in power; (2) To unite Korea under his leadership; (3) To give vent to his life-long hatred of the Japanese.”3 A Top-Secret briefing paper prepared for the National Security Council in 1954 in connection with negotiations being conducted in Geneva was even blunter: “Rhee appears depressed, uncertain…resentful, emotionally disturbed over failure in Washington, angry over troop withdrawals. His present agitated mood could result in dangerous and irrational conduct.”4

By 1960, Korean public opposition to Syngman Rhee had reached the boiling point. Marshall Green described in a 1988 interview the embassy’s role in Rhee’s surrendering of power: “Our advice in this situation was to call on the Korean people to try to maintain order and respect for law and authority, but to call on the government to recognize the justifiable grievances of the people. The phrase ‘justifiable grievances’ was one that I cooked up…and was to become famous because when we used it publicly, ‘justifiable grievances’ identified the U.S. with the people. The minute we used ‘justifiable grievances,’ the students were with us.” 

Green recalled that on April 25, 1960: “Tanks were lining up with their barrels facing out towards what were going to be the advancing phalanxes of student. In other words, carnage was impending. Ambassador McConaughy and Minister of Defense Kim, called up Syngman Rhee and urged that he meet with them, which he did. As a result, before the students actually reached the palace, Syngman Rhee announced that he was going to meet the grievances of the people, and that he was going to consider the question of his continuation in office. I remember that when the Ambassador drove back from his meeting with Rhee, the Embassy was surrounded by thousands of people cheering the American government, the American people.”5 On April 26 , a CIA airplane flew Rhee out of Korea to Honolulu, where he spent the remaining five years of his life before dying of a stroke.

Did the US Embassy interfere in Korean domestic politics in the case of Syngman Rhee? Unquestionably. They acted in the face of what they considered imminent bloodshed. The lengthy interview with Green makes clear that McConaughy, along with Defense Minister Kim, went to the palace on April 25 to try to persuade Syngman Rhee to step down, not to bully him into doing so. Green said: “McConaughy was a true Southern gentleman, who, as a guest in the country of Syngman Rhee, treated Rhee with proper deference and respect, and listened to him. When the critical moment came, Rhee heeded their advice about resigning.” 

When the US government decided it had to act, it sided with Korean students and protesters, not with the Korean leader with whom it had worked for decades. It was led by Republican Eisenhower, staunchly anti-communist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and the Cold War Director of the CIA, Allen Dulles—a team rarely accused of harboring leftist sympathies.

Park Chung-hee Takes Control

The government of figurehead President Yun Bo-seon which followed Syngman Rhee’s departure was unable to cobble together a governing majority in the National Assembly and faced continuing street protests demanding rapid reform. In the midst of this political disorder, Major General Park Chung-hee’s military coup took place on May 16, 1961. The military officers’ Supreme Council for National Reconstruction was nominally led by Army Chief of Staff Chang Do-young, but Park arrested General Chang in July 1961 and took control of the government. Carter B. Magruder, commander of the 8th Army stationed in Korea and Charge’ d’Affaires Marshall Green contacted Korean military leaders and politicians and urged them to suppress the coup. To their consternation, the mainstream of the Korean military, President Yun, and Prime Minister Jang Myeon all showed no appetite to put down the coup, even though it was launched by a small group that could have been easily suppressed by government forces.6

Green wrote: “President [Yun] responded that his evaluation differed somewhat from that presented by General Magruder and myself. He stated that dissatisfaction and disillusionment with present government were widespread and that people no longer trusted promises of Chang Myon cabinet. National constitution had failed to achieve sufficient alleviation of suffering and provide employment in manner which had been promised. President [Yun] said that Korea needed a strong government and that Chang Myon had proven himself incapable of providing such leadership.” In the absence of resistance to the coup from the Korean civilian and military establishments, the United States concluded that intervention against Park was pointless.7

The CIA assessed the coup in a Current Intelligence Weekly Summary on July 6, 1961, classified Secret: “The ouster of Lt. Gen. Chang To-yong from the South Korean military junta on 3 July was a major move by Maj. Gen. Pak Chong-hui to establish his undisputed control of the present military regime…Chang’s removal was quickly followed by the arrest of three other members of the ruling Supreme Council for National Reconstruction whose loyalty to Park was doubtful…There are indications Pak distrusts officers who are known to be pro-American and who he believes have independent channels to American influence.”8

Contrary to later claims that the US government orchestrated Park Chung-hee’s military coup, documentary evidence based on classified documents shows that it intended to side with the Korean government and military establishment in putting down the coup. It seems that Korean politicians and military leaders in 1961 were disheartened by their inability to bring order to Korea following Rhee’s departure, and were at least resigned to, if not in favor of, Park’s military takeover. As the italicized language (my emphasis) in the above paragraph indicates, Park, for his part, did not expect support from the United States.

Park Chung-hee and Richard Nixon

An August 21, 1969 summit planned between President Park and President Nixon in San Francisco created a need for US intelligence services to reassess the political situation in South Korea, particularly in light of the upcoming 1971 elections. There was growing concern that Park would decide to run regardless of the constitutional constraints. During the 1960s, a single-minded focus in Washington on the Vietnam War had led to inattention to other parts of Asia, including South Korea. What they saw in South Korea during the summit preparations was worrying.

A National Intelligence Estimate of July 17, titled “The Outlook in South Korea” stated: “Well in advance of the 1971 presidential election, political tensions in South Korea are acute and growing. Pak’s political associates are pressing for third term for him, but he has not yet made his decision. For him to run would require passage of a constitutional amendment and there is strong opposition to such a move even within some circles of ruling party.” “The most serious source of trouble for the regime is likely to come from the students—whose potential for disruption has been clearly demonstrated before and who largely oppose amending the Constitution.” “The contest in South Korea is essentially a struggle over political power rather than over particular domestic or foreign policies…The main political question is whether South Korea’s fledgling constitutional democracy can undergo something like a free political contest, or whether the government’s desire to keep control will lead to heavy-handed suppression of its opponents.”9

In a National Security Council meeting on August  14, Nixon discussed the upcoming summit with Park and the political situation in South Korea. According to minutes of the meeting,10 (following a discussion of the size and capabilities of the South Korean military, Nixon turned to Secretary of State William Rogers and said: “Bill, weren’t you impressed with SK morale.” Rogers replied “Yes, they’re strong. They ask for so much. They use scare stories to up their requests. Opposition to Park third term among young, intellectuals. This is loyalty to constitution, opposition to military dictatorship.”

Park Chung-hee and the 1971 Election

As 1970 was drawing to a close, it became clear that Park would run for a third term in the May 1971 election despite his earlier promise not to, and that opposition leader Kim Dae-jung had a chance of winning the election. A November 1970 confidential memorandum from the State Department to Henry Kissinger, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs assessed the race: “…the candidate of the opposition New Democratic Party, Kim Tae-chung, has already emerged as a serious contender in the race against President Park Chung-hee. There is widespread impatience at the heavy hand of [Park’s] security organs. The campaign to amend the Constitution…left a legacy of distrust and disappointment.” “Kim is able and intelligent, an excellent orator…He offers an alternative. He does not deny Park’s achievements, but declares that a change is needed to straighten out the political, economic and social inequalities…”  “President Park has reportedly asked Prime Minister Chung Il-kwon to ‘do something’ about Kim.”11

Park had his supporters in the US Administration. Robert Houdek, who was a special assistant to Kissinger recommended that the CIA should create a more complete biography of Kim Dae- jung and a further assessment of his electoral chances. Alexander Haig, who was also on Kissinger’s staff at the time, wrote on the bottom of Houdek’s memo: “Yes, and we’re helping defeat Park for a less reliable substitute.”12  

A detailed National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was prepared by the CIA in December 1970 of the political situation in advance of the May 1971 elections. It states: “South Korea’s political stability rests too much on Park himself.” “Park’s dominance is based to an unhealthy extent on the widespread sense of fear from the North, which the government has at least in part purposely exaggerated.” “In sum, while Park is careful to preserve the forms of parliamentary process, there is little real sharing of power or deep-felt public identification with the regime.”  “When Park chose to amend the Constitution last year, to enable himself to run for a third term as President in 1971, he forfeited an opportunity to oversee the first orderly transfer of power in the Republic’s history.” “If Park should take repressive measures against Kim or other critics, he could further fuel the incipient discontent with his authoritarianism.” The NIE’s conclusion was: “A more serious source of potential instability [than North Korea] is the political situation in South Korea itself. Should the sense of threat from the North recede, the main justification for the repression of political life in South Korea would no longer appear acceptable to important elements in the population.”13

By the end of 1970, though National Security Council staff had concluded that Kim Dae-jung was “attractive, active…forthcoming and direct…a proven vote getter with a persuasive manner and an eloquent, oratorical style,” they found his chances of winning against Park Chung-hee’s Democratic-Republic Party were “marginal at best,” because of Park’s financial and organizational advantages.14

With the election nearing, Park and Kim Dae-jung separately approached the US government with concerns. On  January 12, 1971,. Ambassador Porter cabled the State Department to report that his luncheon with the Prime Minister Paek Tu Chin that day had almost entirely been taken up with the concern that Kim might meet with “important people in the United States” during his pre-election trip to Washington. Paek urged the ambassador to issue a public statement that “the U.S. is absolutely neutral in matter of ROK election ‘despite rumors that we are supporting opposition.’” Porter demurred, saying that such a statement “would not be a practical measure” to deal with rumor, and asked why the Korean government was so worried about Kim’s trip.  Was it because the government feared that Kim’s visit to Washington would receive great publicity in the Korean media? In Porter’s report of the lunch, “Only time Paek Tu Chin laughed during interview was at that point.  He said, ‘That will never happen.’”15

While in Washington, Kim Dae-jung met with the secretary of state and separately with Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Marshall Green. Kim and Green spoke about US China policy, but Kim also noted rumors of a possible military coup in Seoul and pointedly asked, “What would the U.S. do?” A reporting cable from the State Department to Embassy Seoul on Kim’s Washington meetings says: “Green declined direct response, indicating, however, that USG deeply interested in government that represents the will of the people.”16

On April 27, Park was re-elected for a third term with a vote of 6,342,828 over Kim’s 5,395,000.  A post-election memorandum from the State Department to Kissinger concluded: “A strong and forceful president who has moved Korea ahead has been returned to office; and a vigorous opposition will sit in the Assembly with enough clout to make certain there is no sliding back to repressive rule.”17 This optimistic assessment was ill-founded. In October 1972, Park dissolved the National Assembly and suspended the 1963 Constitution.

Park’s Emergency Measures and Martial Law

On December 2, Korean CIA (KCIA) Director Yi Hu Rak privately informed the US Embassy that Park would announce emergency measures during the week of December 5, but there would be no special military movements, no steps would be taken against the National Assembly, and that there would be “nothing legally binding” about the emergency statement.  Rather it was intended to be an exhortative declaration to “awaken” the people and make them realize there were things that needed to be done to assure the security of Korea.18

On December 10, the embassy provided its assessment of Park’s emergency measures to the State Department: “President Park has abandoned a political course which has served him and his nation well and which we have encouraged in Korea for 25 years…he has deliberately embarked on a program of highly personal, authoritarian rule.” “We cannot now predict the future train of events. Stability in the near future rests on Park’s ability, for the present unquestioned, to maintain control through the traditional instruments of dictatorship—the bureaucracy, the police agencies and the Army.” “We should not support or approve Park’s repressive domestic political actions or be associated with them publicly or privately. Indeed, we believe they were unnecessary and in the long run unwise.” “There are those in Korea, and elsewhere, who will be disappointed if the U.S. does not use what leverage it has to try to force the ROKG to reinstitute democracy in Korea. However, it remains our view that the costs of trying to coerce Park to retreat are too great…and, in any event, might fail.”19

On December 13, Ambassador Philip Habib met with Park. “Without further ado, Park launched into a fairly lengthy statement regarding the declaration of emergency in Korea. [Park] wanted to place particular emphasis on U.S. understanding of the matter,” explaining that he had felt compelled to act because of dangers facing South Korea. Habib said that the United States had no evidence a North Korean attack was imminent, and that Park must know that. Park promised to review the latest joint military assessment but argued that Kim Il-sung had the ability to attack at any time, in any case. “Park said he does not expect complete understanding in the U.S. for his actions. There are even people in Korea who do not understand the true picture. As President, he was responsible to take all measures to protect the security of his country.” Habib gave himself the last word: “I replied we understood his concern for the security of his nation and we had demonstrated our commitment to that security for many years,” adding that the summit Park was seeking with Nixon would not be possible. It is clear from Habib’s first-person cable that his meeting with Park Chung-hee was tense.20 The relationship between the United States and Park Chung-hee’s Korea then settled into an uneasy status quo.

Park Chung-hee and the United States: The Later Years

In September 1974, the CIA prepared an updated Secret review of the political situation in South Korea with the title: “South Korea: The Outlook for the Pak Government.” It opened with this overview: “In the three years since his narrow victory in the 1971 presidential elections, Pak Chong-hui has undertaken a systemic campaign to strengthen and perpetuate his control over South Korea. He has used threats and intimidation, declared martial law and emergency situations, rewritten the constitution to his own specifications, and, since the first of this year, issued a series of emergency decrees providing for strict punishment for any who question his policies.”21 The report concluded that Park was in firm control of the levers of power, but domestic opposition threatened his long-term survivability: “Students, Christians, writers, and some politicians have resisted his efforts and in the last year or so have begun to press privately and in public for meaningful political reform…Many simply want to return to the pre-1971 system of limited parliamentary government, which Pak tolerated partly out of deference to his government’s then heavy dependence on the U.S. [emphasis mine]. Many in the opposition increasingly believe that if Pak will not change his policies he must be removed.” The CIA analysis concludes with a comparison between the end of the Syngman Rhee regime and prospects for Park Chung-hee: “Pak is not an enfeebled Syngman Rhee, nor is there any similarity between Pak’s regime and the Rhee government in its final days. What similarity exists rests on the manner in which both men have foreclosed the possibility of peaceful change in political leadership. In the end, unwillingness to share power brought Rhee down and it may eventually be Pak’s undoing.”

On June 23, 1976, candidate Jimmy Carter, in a speech before the Foreign Policy Association in New York, condemned the South Korean government’s “repugnant” oppression of dissent and promised, if elected, to withdraw US troops from Korea. Although authoritarianism in South Korea was not the sole reason for the troop withdrawal promise, the fact that he made the two statements in the same speech shows a link. After his election, three years of internal debate ensued regarding Carter’s promise, pitting the president against almost all of his foreign policy advisors. Among top officials, only National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski supported the President’s point of view. Also influential in staying the President’s hand was the unanimity of desire within South Korea for US troops to remain. Even dissident Kim Dae-jung encouraged leaving ground troops in place, in part because he believed that an absence of US troops would make the end of martial law and a turn toward democracy less likely.22

In July 1979, Carter met Park in Seoul while returning from a G7 meeting in Tokyo. Carter was still on the fence regarding withdrawing troops from Korea, but the troops remained in place pending his decision. He did not like being reminded that the matter was still pending and his aides sent word to Park to not raise the issue in their first meeting. Park ignored the warning and argued to Carter against a troop withdrawal and spoke to the point for 45 minutes. Carter then talked privately with Park about his concerns regarding human rights, returned to his limousine, furious, and stalled the motorcade while, in Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s account, he “unburdened himself,” threatening to announce a withdrawal of troops on the spot.23 A few weeks later, back in Washington, Carter suspended a decision on the troop withdrawal until 1981, when the situation would be reexamined. But by 1981, Carter was out of office and Park was dead, having been assassinated by Director of the KCIA Kim Jae-kyu on October 26, 1979. 

Chun Doo-hwan’s Rise: 1980-1984

In the immediate aftermath of Park’s assassination, there was confusion regarding the procedures for succession. Not until December 6 did Prime Minister Choi Kyu-ha become acting president. Army Chief of Staff Jeong Seung-hwa shortly afterwards ordered Major General Chun Doo-hwan, as head of the Security Command, to investigate the circumstances of the assassination. Chun created a “Joint Investigation Headquarters” which put him in charge of all South Korean intelligence services. From that position of power, Chun ordered the arrest of Jeong on December 12, 1979 on the charge of conspiring in the assassination. Chun took control of the government in all but name. In April 1980, Chun promoted himself to the rank of lieutenant general and appointed himself director of the Korean CIA (KCIA). The parallel between the 1960 and 1979 instances of military leaders maneuvering into positions of power during times of government instability suggests itself.

On May 9, 1980, CIA Director Stansfield Turner sent a signed, Top Secret, Alert Memorandum to the National Security Council reporting that anti-Chun demonstrations by Korean students, supported by opposition political leaders and workers, were coming to a head, stating, “The outcome of clashes by students and troops, if they occur, will depend on the response of several key actors, and certainly on the state of mind and the role played by military strongman Chon Doo Hwan.” Turner was concerned about whether North Korea might take advantage of the turmoil to act: “While what we have observed of North Korean reactions to developments in the South since the Park assassination does not yet suggest an intent to exploit the situation militarily, I continue to be concerned about the adequacy of warning on Korea  In this light, the current South Korean unrest, which brings with it the possibility of a military takeover, is yet another in a series of recent events that could undermine stability in the South and tempt Pyongyang to attack.”24

The May 9 Alert Memorandum attempts to predict Chun‘s course of action in dealing with the demonstrators’ demands that martial law be lifted by May 14. “The attitude and role of military strongman Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan with respect to these developments probably will be decisive. All of the actors in this situation will, however, be very mindful of US Government attitudes. Student and opposition leaders will be looking to the United States to restrain and inhibit crackdowns by the ROK Government and the military. Chon himself will want to avoid as much as possible provoking US reactions that could undermine his position or the US/ROK security relationship. Nevertheless, if Chon believes that the United States is out to get him and that his power within the ROK military is eroding as a result, he may be prepared to discount US attitudes in the interest of taking full control of the government.”25

On May 14, the CIA followed up on its earlier memorandum with a 14-page assessment of the political and security situation titled, “Political Reconstruction in South Korea: A Difficult Road.” It focuses primarily on Chun’s character, motivations, and prospects, allowing for the possibility that Chun is as he describes himself, a “simple soldier” whose highest ambition is to serve as army chief of staff within a civilian-led government. It concludes, instead, that he “sees himself as a great patriot and potential national leader in the mold of Park Chung-hee, whom he served closely and whom he regarded as a father figure. Chun may, therefore, regard himself as Park’s rightful heir and may believe that it is his mission to preserve and continue the Yusin (Park’s authoritarian regime) tradition.”26 The memorandum, perhaps over-optimistically, assesses that concerns over US government attitudes might have a restraining role on Chun: “Korean military officers view Chun’s move to KCIA as the principal factor behind the US postponement of the bilateral security talks originally scheduled for this summer. This, in turn, has created some concern about Chun’s ability to manage relations with the US effectively. If Chun were to assume even greater power through the extension of martial law, uneasiness about the prospects for the all-important relationship with Washington could grow.”

The memorandum also tried to forecast how Chun would deal with the opposition from student groups, labor, and political dissidents: “The major political parties are riven by dissension…students are beginning to demonstrate against what they—and many other South Koreans—see as government unwillingness to expedite the transition process. Most important, however, is the growing public suspicion that the powerful military establishment is bent on manipulating the transition to its advantage and is sharply slowing the pace of political liberalization.” “The students, disgruntled workers, and others…seem to be playing into Chun’s hands. Their recent call for an immediate end to martial law could provoke the kind of instability that Chun needs to step in…it is an open question when or whether Chun Doo Hwan would relinquish the authority he would acquire from the resulting turmoil.”

That assessment proved accurate. The authors mistakenly believed, however, that “The military will be content to let the police handle student demonstrations and will be reluctant to sully the image of the military by using troops to quell student protests.” Only four days after the memorandum was presented to the National Security Council, Chun ordered the military, using tanks and helicopter gunships, to suppress protestors in the city of Gwangju who had taken over City Hall. The May 18 massacre in Gwangju was a defining moment in modern Korean history and Chun Doo Hwan is forever associated with it.     

Chun Doo-hwan’s Fall: 1984-1987

By autumn 1984, signs began to appear that Chun’s grip on power was weakening. A September 21 CIA report assessed that, “Chun’s program to liberalize the Korean scene prior to the 1988 presidential election could be substantially disrupted or even aborted by year’s end.”27 Chun had adopted a hands-off policy towards college campuses, but the CIA was uncertain he would be able to maintain it, “Whether Chun continues to turn the other cheek, as he did in dealing with protests this past spring, will depend largely on the extent of student activity this fall.”  “The coincidence of three events this autumn—election campaigns in both South Korea and the United States and the planned return of Kim Dae Jung [from a four-year exile in the U.S.] will allow both students and dissidents to play to an international as well as domestic audience, testing Seoul’s ability to hew to its liberalization course.”

In November 1984, Chun rolled back his liberalizing policy towards university campuses, reintroducing riot police on campuses. In a December 28 memorandum, the CIA identified Chun’s inability to carry through with his promises of liberalization towards student protests as a major and growing weakness: “Seoul’s tightening of political controls on student protest leaders and other critics…will further erode public confidence in Chun’s promise to oversee a peaceful transfer of power in 1988.”  “In our judgment, the South Korean public believes campus problems are chiefly the fault of ill-advised government policies.” “…with more than one-fourth of Korean youth now attending higher learning institutions, many Korean families see themselves as at least potentially affected by tougher government behavior toward student protestors.” “Press commentary has focused on the failure to devise a solution to the student problems rather than on the danger to stability posed by radical activists, underscoring public impatience with Seoul’s inability to solve the campus crisis.”28 The assessment also doubted that Chun would be able to deal with the campus problem: “We believe that Chun is unlikely to take the steps—beginning with sanctioning elected student government—necessary to persuade both the students and the public that he will carry out meaningful political reforms over the next several years.”

By February 1985, the CIA believed that Chun’s position was becoming unviable. “President Chun Doo Hwan faces a political challenge over the next several months that would test even a leader considerably more skilled in political maneuvering.” “Halfway through his term and apparently no closer to gaining popular acceptance than when he became president, Chun faces renewed agitation for fundamental political reforms—such as allowing direct election of the president—that threatens his orchestration of a transfer of power when his term ends in 1988 or any hopes he may have of extending his rule.” The CIA analysts were also suspicious of Chun’s motives: “We are not optimistic that Chun’s conciliatory postelection statement or the recent cabinet changes signal a genuine commitment to a more liberal approach on his part. Chun’s initial response to the [National Assembly election] results suggest he is focusing more on reestablishing control than on setting an agenda.”  Perhaps even more damning, the analysts were beginning to question even Chun’s control of the Korean military: “Chances are better than even, in our view, that if Chun had to call on the Army to restore order, senior officers would take the opportunity to replace him with one of their own.”29

Rising political tensions in South Korea during 1985 began to include significant elements of anti-Americanism. In May, student dissidents occupied the United States Information Service (USIS) library in Seoul. A June 1985 CIA Intelligence Assessment highlighted pressures on the US-ROK relationship from both the left and the right in Korea: “Both the Chun government and its critics have shown themselves ready to turn anti-US incidents to their own purposes. For example, government hardliners have claimed that the anti-US incidents demonstrate the need for tighter political controls to maintain ‘order and stability.’ Opposition leaders, on the other hand, have told US officials that only sweeping reforms—and a greater role for themselves—will prevent younger Koreans from becoming more radical and anti-American.”30 

By December 1985, the CIA was predicting that Chun would fail: “We believe the possibility of serious trouble will increase with the approach of 1988, when Chun has promised to step down.  In our view, any widespread perception that Chun is reneging on his promise—recent reports that he is having second thoughts are worrisome—or pursuing an obviously flawed succession strategy, could bring an early test of strength with the opposition and a preemptive power grab by would-be successors. We are not optimistic that Chun will display the flexibility and conciliation needed to ease political tensions and to fashion a leadership transition that his opponents, the populace, and the Army can accept.”31 The Agency’s suspicion of Chun’s intentions had increased by March 1986: “His behavior has fueled speculation among politically attuned Koreans that he plans either to install a compliant surrogate, enabling him to manipulate the government from behind the scenes, or seek another term under a new constitution.”32

The beginning of Chun’s political crisis was outlined in an internal memo from the CIA’s director of East Asian analysis through the deputy directors, to CIA Director, William Casey in November 1986: “Within the next few months Chun appears prepared to ram through a constitutional revision to create a parliamentary system to replace the current presidential system when his term expires in February 1988. Chun intends to handpick the Prime Minister.” “President Chun is widely perceived as determined to continue to manipulate the political process from behind the scenes after he steps down from office in February 1988; should Chun attempt to do so—and I believe he will—his efforts are likely to provoke political violence either in the form of a military coup or student/labor led popular uprisings.”33 The memo describes the US position in the crisis: “All sides view the US as the key source of legitimacy for any post-Chun political arrangement…the possibility that the US can sit on the sidelines during the turbulent period between now and February 1988 is remote.”  “Merely echoing our support for a peaceful transition and a government ‘supported by all the Korean people’ is likely to be distorted by President Chun as [an endorsement].” “The discontent of the so-called have-nots with corruption [and repression] is so strong as to raise the real prospect of some segments of society imploding if existing political and economic discontents are not ameliorated.”  “The worst-case scenario for the US in South Korea would be to stand idly by while Chun rammed through his own version of constitutional revision which would leave him as a dominant voice over a handpicked successor government.”  “A potentially large time bomb is ticking away in South Korea and a more assertive US role is going to be required to defuse it.”

Three Decades After Syngman Rhee: Another US Ambassador Asks to See Another Korean President

Strikingly similar to Marshall Green’s description of Ambassador McConaughy’s final meeting with Syngman Rhee in 1960 is Foreign Service Officer Thomas Dunlop’s description of Ambassador Lilley’s crucial meeting with Chun Doo-hwan in 1987: “I contacted Ambassador Lilley and told him that the letter [From President Reagan to President Chun] was on the way and I would make an appointment for Ambassador Lilley to call on President Chun on the afternoon of Thursday, June 18. I had a horrible feeling [following an initial refusal to schedule the meeting] that Chun had already made up his mind and didn’t want to receive the letter in person. Finally, the appointment was set up for 2:00 pm on the afternoon of Friday, June 19. Just an hour before he went in to see President Chun, there was an announcement over the radio that the Prime Minister would address the nation at midnight that day. I thought, ‘My God, that means that martial law is about to be declared.’” Lilley met, alone, with Chun for two hours.  Dunlop described the contents of Reagan’s letter as informing Chun that the “Korean-American alliance would be under severe strain if the political process broke down and if the presidential elections were cancelled.”34 Late in the afternoon, the prime minister’s radio address was cancelled. Dunlop does not believe that Chun backed away from declaring martial law and cancelling elections solely because of Reagan’s message—Korean officials and military officers were giving him similar advice—but the timing of events on June 19 was so compressed that US pressure may have tipped the balance. South Korea held its first free national election for president on December 16.


The 2010 Wikileaks release of over 200,000 State Department cables revealed that there is remarkably little difference between what the US Government says publicly and what it says privately. Conspiracy theorists were disappointed. Even if they provide few surprises, declassified documents can tell us how the government assessed situations, and the choice of words can tell us about attitudes and preferences. Referring to Chun as a “strongman” was uncomplimentary. Korean conservatives blamed students for campus riots: US classified documents blamed Chun Doo-hwan for mismanaging the situation.

Reviewing US dealings with Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee, and Chun Doo-hwan is a useful exercise for current policy makers, because we are examining the experiences of people rather than the history of nations. South Koreans aged in their 40s remember Park’s assassination, Chun’s rule, and the Gwangju massacre. Americans, whose knowledge of South Korea has been formed only during the recent era of South Korean democracy, found it preposterous when rumors surfaced in South Korea at the end of 2016 that President Park Geun-hye was considering imposing martial law.35 The rumors may have been ill-founded, but they were not ridiculous to middle-aged and older Koreans given their personal experience.  Martial law in South Korea only ended in 1981, and continued virtually well into the 1980s.

Of course, documentary history reveals its share of U.S. government misjudgments and mistakes. Those who look for evidence that it supported authoritarian regimes at the expense of democratic development during the Cold War, including in South Korea, can find pieces of evidence to support that belief. However, the preponderance of evidence regarding Korea shows that Washington generally favored democracy over rule by individuals, even when those individuals claimed to be US allies. This was a pragmatic as well as an ethical choice.  US officials consistently believed that authoritarianism in Korea would lead to political instability rather than prevent it.

The United States can be fairly charged with interfering in South Korean domestic politics. If your belief is that authoritarian rule was necessary during the 1960s and 1970s to protect South Korea against North Korea and against leftist, domestic subversion, then the United States was wrongly putting South Korea at risk by nudging Rhee and, more or less, pushing Chun out of power. Although it actively intervened only rarely, and when it believed bloodshed was imminent, when it did so, it chose the side of democracy. This is not a history of neutrality.  

Koreans today can look back and see that the United States had a productive relationship with Korean authoritarian governments. That may create the impression of US support for those regimes. The evidence, however, shows that it dealt with authoritarian regimes out of necessity, not out of choice. Today’s Korean political parties, both right of center and left of center, are equally the political descendants of those the United States supported in postwar Korea–because today both support constitutional democracy.

1. Max Hastings, Max. The Korean War (London: Macmillan , 1987).

2. Ibid.

3. Allen Dulles, "Intelligence Report (IR) 6136." Record Group 59. Washington, D.C.: Office of Intelligence Research, Department of State, 23 December 1952.

4. NSC Briefing. "National Security Council Briefing." CIA-RDP79R00890A000400020036-2. 5 October 1954.

5. Marshall Green, "The Fall of South Korean Strongman Syngman Rhee–April 26, 1960." Moments in Diplomatic History, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (1988): 27. Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History.

6. Cho, Ilsoo David, “The 1961 May 16 Coup,” Wilson Center Digital Archive, 10 January, 2017.,

7. Ibid.

8. CIA, Current Intelligence Weekly Summary, No. 71, July 6, 1961.

9. Daniel J. Lawler, Erin R. Mahan and Edward C. Keefer. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Vol. XIX, Part 1, Korea, 1969-1972 (Washington DC: US Government Publishing Office, April 2010).

10. NSC, Minutes of a National Security Council Meeting, 34.

11. State Department. "The Korean Presidential Campaign." Memorandum from the Executive Secretary of the Department of State to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, 77. 6 November 1970.

12. Robert Houdek, "Cover note from Houdek to Kissinger." National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 542, Country Files, Far East, Korea, Vol. III, 6/70–Dec 70. Confidential. 6 December 1970.

13. Lawler, Mahan, and Keefer. Foreign Relations of the United States.

14. John Holdridge, "Memorandum from John H. Holdridge of the National Security Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, 70." National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC File, Box 542, Country Files, Far East, Korea, Vol. III, 6/70-Dec 70. Secret1970. 23 December 1970.

15. Porter. "Telegram from the Embassy in Korea to the Department of State, 85. Confidential." Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XIX, Part 1, Korea, 1969-1072. 27 January 1971.

16. "Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Korea: Kim Tae-chung in Washington." Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XIX, Part 1, Korea, 1969-1972, 87. 3 February 1971.

17. Theodore Eliot, Jr. "Editorial Note, 93." Foreign Relatins of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XIX, Part 1, Korea, 1969-1972. 28 May 1971.

18. "From the Embassy in Korea to the Department of State, 117, Secret." Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976,, Volume XIX, Part 1, Korea, 1969-1972. 2 December 1971.

19. "Airgram from the Embassy in Korea to the Department of State: U.S. Policy in Korea–Country Team Message. Secret. 170." Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XIX, Part 1, Korea, 1969-1972. 10 December 1972.

20. "From the Embassy in Korea to the Department of State: First person from the Ambassador, 119, Secret." Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XIX, Part 1, Korea, 1969-1972. 13 December 1971.

21.  "Report: South Korea: The Outlook for the Pak Government." CIA-RDP79R01099A00160000400003-4, Secret. 17 September 1974.

22. Joe Wood, "Persuading a President: Jimmy Carter and American Troops in Korea." Study prepared for the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence. 1996.

23. Ibid.

24. Stansfield Turner, "Alert Memorandum for the National Security Council, Top Secret." CIA-RDP83B01027R000200020024-8. 9 May 1980.

25. Ibid.

26. "Intelligence Memorandum: Political Reconstruction in South Korea: A Difficult Road." CIA-RDP85T00287R000101140001-6. 14 May 1980.

27. "South Korea: The Political Scene in the Post-Summit Period, Secret." CIA-RDP04T00367R000302070001-1. 21 September 1984.

28. "South Korea: Retreat from Campus Liberalization Program, Secret." CIA-RDP85T00287R001001170002-2. 28 December 1984.

29. "South Korea: Where Does Chun Go From Here?" CIA-RDP85T01058R000100990001-7. 22 February 1985.

30.  "Intelligence Assessment: South Korea: The Rise in Anti-US Incidents, Secret." CIA-RDP04T00447R00200840001-0. June 1985.
"South Korea: Chun Walks a Tightrope, Secret." CIA-RDP87S00734R000100030039-0. 21 August 1985.

31. "Intelligence Assessment: South Korea: Warning Signs of Political Change, Secret." CIA-RDP86T00590R000400620002-2. December 1985.

32.  "South Korea: Reenacting the Phlilppine Drama?" CIA-RDP86T01017R000605920001-8. 31 March 1986.

33. "Memorandum to the Director of Central Intelligence: The Time Bomb is Ticking, Secret." CIA-RDP88G01116R000901160003-2. 25 November 1986.

34. Dunlop, Thomas. "Delivering the Mail and Avoiding Martial Law in South Korea, 1987." Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History: Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (2013).

35. Han-soo Lee. "Is South Korean President Considering Martial Law?" The Korea Times, November 18, 2016.