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Monday, 26 October 2015

Turning Back our Pendulum: Assassination of President Park Chung-hee in Gimi Year (1979)

Park Chung-hee, president of South Korea, was assassinated on Friday, October 26th 1979 at 7:41pm during a dinner at a Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) safehouse inside the Blue House presidential compound, Gungjeong-dong, Seoul Jongno-gu by Kim Jae-kyu, who was the director of KCIA and the president's security chief. Park was shot in the chest and head, and died almost immediately. Four bodyguards and a presidential chauffeur were also killed.

This gruesome incident is known as Park Chung-hee's Assassination (Hangul/Hanja/Romanization: 박정희 암살사건/朴正煕暗殺事件/Park Chung-hee Amsal Sageon) or the 10.26 incident (10·26 사건/十二六事件/Sip-isimnyuk Sageon or Sip-i-yuk Sageon). Gimi (기미/己未 - Yin Earth Goat) derives from the Sexagenary Cycle's 56th year of Sino-Korean Calendar.

By the time of his assassination, President Park had exercised dictatorial power over South Korea for nearly 18 years. The Korean Central Intelligence Agency was created in 1961 to coordinate both international and domestic intelligence activities, including those of the military. Almost immediately following its creation, the KCIA was used to suppress any domestic opposition to Park's regime using its broad powers to wiretap, arrest, and torture anyone without a court order. KCIA was heavily involved in many behind-the-scene political manoeuvrings aimed at weakening the opposition parties through bribing, blackmailing, threatening, or arresting opposition lawmakers. President Park nevertheless nearly lost the presidential election to Kim Dae-jung in 1971 despite spending ten percent of the national budget on his election campaign. 

Park therefore established the Yushin Constitution in 1972 to ensure his perpetual dictatorship. This abolished the direct vote in presidential elections and replaced it with an indirect voting system involving delegates, allotted one third of the National Assembly seats to the president, gave the president the authority to issue emergency decrees and suspend the Constitution, gave the president the authority to appoint all judges and dismiss the National Assembly, and repealed a term limit to presidency. When opposition to the Yushin Constitution arose, Park issued a number of emergency decrees, the first of which made any act of opposition or denial of the Yushin Constitution punishable by imprisonment for up to 15 years through a military tribunal.

The last year of his rule was particularly turbulent with increasing opposition from the New Democratic Party (NDP), which was emboldened after winning the 1978 election by 1.1% despite Park's complete control of the media, money, and all the institutions of government. Because of the Yushin Constitution, which allowed President Park to appoint one third of National Assembly seats, Park's Democratic Republican Party (DRP) remained in power; nevertheless, it was an embarrassing situation for Park. 

In May 1979, Kim Young Sam was elected as the chairman of New Democratic Party (NDP) despite intense behind-the-scene manoeuvrings by KCIA to back a more pliable candidate, Yi Chul-seung. Kim took the hardline policy of never compromising or cooperating with Park until the repeal of the Yushin Constitution. In August 1979, 2,000 policemen stormed the NDP headquarters, which was used by female workers at a wig company for their sit-in demonstration. In the process, one female worker died and many lawmakers trying to protect them were severely beaten, some requiring hospitalization. After this incident, which garnered widespread criticism of the government, Park was determined to remove Kim from the political scene in the same manner the imprisoned Kim Dae-jung was dispatched. The KCIA was duly instructed to engineer such a move.

In September 1979, the courts obliged by ordering the nullification of Kim's chairmanship of the NDP, and Park's Democratic Republican Party (DRP) expelled him from the National Assembly in a secret session on October 5th which led all 66 NDP lawmakers to submit their resignation to the National Assembly in protest (The Carter administration in the U.S. recalled its ambassador to Seoul in protest as well). When it became known that the government was planning to accept the resignations selectively, uprisings broke out in Kim's hometown of Busan (the second largest city in South Korea) on October 16th 1979, resulting in arson attacks on 30 police stations over several days. 

It was the largest demonstration since the days of President Syngman Rhee and spread to nearby Masan on October 19th 1979 and other cities, with students and citizens calling for repeal of the Yushin Constitution. The KCIA Director, Kim, went to Busan to investigate the situation and found that the demonstrations were not riots by some college students, but more like a "popular uprising joined by regular citizens" to resist the regime. He warned President Park that the uprisings would spread to five other large cities, including Seoul. Park said that he himself would give direct orders to the security forces to fire upon demonstrators if the situation got worse. Less than a week later, he was assassinated by his own security chief.

While President Park faced an increasing opposition to his dictatorship outside Blue House, another kind of conflict was intensifying inside Blue House between Kim Jae-kyu, who was appointed to directorship of KCIA in December 1976, and Chief Bodyguard Cha Ji-chul, who was appointed to his position in 1974 after Park's wife Yook Young-soo was killed in an assassination attempt by Moon Se-gwang, a Korean living in Japan.

The rivalry stemmed largely from Cha's increasing encroachment into KCIA turf and arrogant behavior that belittled Kim in public. Almost universally disliked yet feared, Cha served Park in close proximity and became his favorite and most trusted advisor in the process. Cha appropriated tanks, helicopters, and troops from the Army so that the presidential security apparatus had a division-level firepower under Cha's direct command.

The rivalry between Cha and Kim, whose KCIA was until then the most feared government apparatus, was heightened further with a series of political crises in late 1979 as they clashed over the approach in dealing with growing opposition to the regime. In the NDP's election for its chairman in 1979, KCIA backed Yi Chul-seung to prevent the election of hardliner Kim Young Sam, but Cha Ji-chul interfered in KCIA's political sabotage with its own behind-scene manoeuvrings. When Kim Young Sam was elected as the NDP chairman, Cha laid the blame on KCIA, which infuriated Director Kim.

Later when NDP chief Kim Young-sam called on the U.S. to stop supporting Park's regime in an interview with New York Times reporter Henry Stokes, Cha pushed for Kim's expulsion from the National Assembly, which Director Kim feared to be a disastrous development (as it turned out to be true when it led to uprisings in Busan and Masan). Cha easily bested his opponent as his hardline approach was favored by Park, and he blamed worsening development on Director Kim's weak leadership of KCIA at every opportunity. As Cha came to control the scheduling of President Park's meetings and briefings and thus access to the president, KCIA briefings, which were usually the first business in the morning, were pushed down to afternoons. By October, there were wide rumors that Kim would be soon replaced as KCIA director.

On the day of assassination, Park and his entourage visited ribbon-cutting ceremonies for a dam in Sapgyo-cheon and a KBS TV transmitting station in Dangjin. KCIA Director Kim was expected to accompany him since the TV station was under KCIA jurisdiction, but Chief Bodyguard Cha blocked him from riding in the same helicopter with President Park. Director Kim angrily excused himself from the trip.

After the trip, President Park instructed KCIA to prepare for one of his numerous banquets - on the average of ten per month according to KCIA Chief Agent Park Seon-ho, one of the conspirators - at a KCIA safehouse in Gungjeong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea. It was to be attended by President Park, KCIA Director Kim, Chief Bodyguard Cha, Chief Secretary Kim Gye-won, and two young women - rising singer Shim Soo-bong and a college student named Shin Jae-soon. When Director Kim was notified of the banquet, he called Korean Army Chief of Staff Jeong Seung-hwa 15 minutes later to invite him to the KCIA safehouse and arranged to have him dine with KCIA Deputy Director Kim Jeong-seop in a nearby KCIA building in the same compound. Just before the dinner, Director Kim told Chief Secretary Kim Gye-won that he would get rid of Chief Bodyguard Cha. It is not clear whether Kim Gye-won misheard or misunderstood Director Kim or he ignored Kim's words.

During the dinner, volatile political issues including demonstrations in Busan and the opposition leader Kim Young Sam were discussed with President Park and Chief Bodyguard Cha taking a hardline and Director Kim calling for moderate measures while Chief Secretary Kim was trying to steer the topic of discussion to small talk. President Park rebuked Director Kim for not being repressive enough in dealing with protesters and Kim Young Sam, whom Park said should be arrested. Each time discussion drifted to other subjects, Chief Bodyguard Cha continued to bring up the inability of KCIA to end the crisis and suggested that demonstrators and opposition lawmakers should be "mowed down with tanks." The rebukes from President Park and especially Cha riled up Director Kim. Director Kim left the dining room to convene with his closest subordinates - former Marine colonel and KCIA Chief Agent Park Seon-ho and Army colonel and Director Kim's secretary Park Heung-ju (no relations) - and said to them: "Chief of Staff and Deputy Director are here as well. Today is the day." Asked if President Park is included as a target, Kim said yes.

Kim reentered the meeting room with a semi-automatic pistol Walther PPK, shot Chief Bodyguard Cha in the arm and then President Park in the left chest. He attempted to fire again on Cha, but the gun jammed. Cha fled to a bathroom adjacent to the dining room. Kim came back with his subordinate's gun and again shot at Cha in the abdomen and Park, who was dead by then, in the head. Upon hearing the initial shots, Park Seon-ho held two bodyguards in the waiting room at gunpoint and ordered them to put hands up in hope of preventing further bloodshed especially since he was a friend with one of the bodyguards. When the other bodyguard attempted to reach for a gun, Park shot them both to death. At the same time, Colonel Park Heung-ju and two other KCIA agents stormed the kitchen and killed the remaining bodyguards. President Park, Chief Bodyguard Cha, three presidential bodyguards, and a presidential chauffeur died in the end.

After killing President Park, KCIA Director Kim asked Chief Secretary Kim to secure the safehouse and ran to the nearby KCIA building where Army Chief of Staff Jeong Seung-hwa was waiting. Jeong heard the shootings and was discussing them with KCIA Deputy Director Kim Jeong-seop when Director Kim came in breathless to tell them that an emergency situation occurred. In the car, Kim notified Jeong that President Park had died, but without explaining how he died. Kim hoped that Jeong and Chief Secretary Kim would support him in the coup as both were appointed to their position on his recommendation, and Chief Secretary Kim was especially close with him. The car initially headed to KCIA Headquarters in Namsan district but eventually went to Army Headquarters in Yongsan district since the Army would have to be involved in declaring emergency martial law. Many historians believe that Kim made a critical mistake in not going to KCIA HQ where he would be in control. However, his failure to gain Jeong's support sealed the fate of the conspirators.

Meanwhile, Chief Secretary Kim took President Park's body to the Army hospital and ordered doctors to save him at all costs (without revealing Park's identity), and went to Prime Minister Choi Kyu-hah to reveal what happened that night. When Chief of Staff Jeong learned of what happened from Chief Secretary Kim, he ordered Major General Chun Doo-hwan, commander of Security Command who later became the president of South Korea through a military coup, to arrest Director Kim and investigate the incident. 

Director Kim was arrested after he was lured to a secluded area outside Army HQ on the pretext of meeting with Army Chief of Staff. Eventually, everyone involved in the assassination was arrested, tortured, and later executed. In the process, Chun Doo-hwan emerged as a new political force by investigating and subjugating KCIA, the most feared government agency until then, under his Security Command and later by arresting the chief martial law administrator Jeong Seung-hwa (and Chief Secretary Kim) on suspicion of conspiring with Director Kim. Both were eventually released but after Chun Doo-hwan seized power with a military coup in December 12th 1979, which is known as Double Twelfth Coup - both had been on the death row at one time.