Washington, D.C., February 2, 2010 - Twenty-nine years ago today, less than two weeks after his inauguration, President Ronald Reagan rolled out the welcome mat at the White House for South Korean president and strongman Chun Doo Hwan, despite internal U.S. government concerns about Chun's poor human rights record. Over the previous year, Chun's regime had brutally suppressed the Kwangju student protests and thrown dissident leader Kim Dae Jung into prison. Nevertheless, the new administration, keen to send a strong signal of support for key anti-Communist allies, decided to reverse the previous U.S. policy of voicing public criticism of South Korean repression of its domestic opposition.
Today, the National Security Archive is posting a set of formerly classified documents that provide a revealing window into this pivotal moment in U.S.-South Korean relations. The materials include the memorandum of conversation of Reagan's meeting with Chun on February 2, 1981, Reagan's State Department briefing book, as well as White House memos and State Department cables. The records illuminate the delicate balancing act Reagan's advisers chose to follow in squaring the White House's eagerness to reinvigorate the security relationship with Seoul with the need to avoid the impression of uncritical approval of Chun's repressive human rights policies.
Among other insights into the risky new policy, the documents (acquired through the Freedom of Information Act and from presidential libraries) describe:
- Secretary of State Alexander Haig's acknowledgement that Reagan's invitation to Chun "spoke louder than words" about the administration's desire to strengthen ties to South Korea. (Document No. 4)
- National Security Advisor Richard V. Allen's euphemistic take on the state of play in South Korea: "Human rights survives as a concept, but in a broadened context." (Document No. 5)
- Chun's response to Reagan's assurance about potential U.S. approaches to Pyongyang: "I take your words as a gift, and they will allow me to return home with an easy mind." (Document No. 5)
- U.S. assurances that South Korea can rely on it for supplies and technology for its nuclear power program. (Document No. 6a-b)
Reagan's warm reception of Chun was the public side of a strategy that favored handling human rights concerns behind closed doors. In the short term, the new U.S. approach engendered deep mistrust and suspicion of the U.S. for its role in legitimizing the South Korean government. Over the longer term, the combination of public political support and private encouragement of reform yielded mixed results.
This year, the National Security Archive will publish through ProQuest a major document collection, U.S.-Korean Relations, 1969-2000, which explores the complex history of the two countries' ties.
Seeing human rights in the "proper manner"
The Reagan-Chun Summit of February 1981
By Robert Wampler
President Reagan toasting President Chun, Seoul, Korea, November 1983 [Photo courtesy Reagan Presidential Library]
Over the nearly sixty years since the outbreak of the Korean War, the United States has confronted two challenges on the peninsula. The security threat posed by an often erratic and unpredictable North Korea, centered over the past two decades on Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, has taken center stage often. But just as serious has been the challenge posed by South Korea's troubled political history, as the country struggled to move beyond military-backed authoritarian regimes characterized by the often brutal repression of political opposition, to a democracy backed by popular support enjoying peaceful transfers of power. This tension between security and democratization has colored the history of the relationship and public perceptions in South Korea of America's role in their country's political evolution. It has also at times led to interesting and important contrasts between public and private diplomacy, often driven by the differing perspectives on goals and means held by presidents and their advisors.
A fascinating window on the ways in which public and quiet diplomacy can move on different tracks is provided by the meeting that took place on February 2, 1981, when newly-elected President Ronald Reagan hosted South Korea President Chun Doo Hwan to an official visit at the White House. To mark the anniversary of this pivotal moment in U.S.-South Korea relations, the National Security Archive is posting today a collection of declassified documents obtained by its Korea Project dealing with the Reagan-Chun meeting. In addition to the memorandum of conversation recording the meeting, these documents provide insight into how Reagan was briefed for his meeting with Chun, as well as reports on meetings that Secretary of State Alexander Haig held with Chun's advisors and with Chun during the visit. Finally, two cables from the State Department later in 1981 summarize assessments made by the State Department's Office of Intelligence and Research of Chun's policies and actions in dealing with continued student protests and his goals for political reform.
The Reagan-Chun meeting needs to be seen against the backdrop of the Carter years, when U.S.-South Korean relations were at possibly their lowest point since the Korean War. Here again public and private diplomacy worked on different tracks, in this case president's advisors working behind the scenes to bridge what was a widening chasm between the two nations created by the president's strong views. President Carter's criticisms of human rights abuses in South Korea, joined with his push to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea, although ultimately thwarted, had created deep divisions in the bilateral relationship. The assassination of President Park Chung Hee in 1979 was followed by a military-backed coup that brought Chun Doo Hwan, one of the coup co-conspirators, into the Blue House. Under his leadership occurred the brutal repression of political protests in Kwangju, and the trial and conviction of leading dissident leader Kim Dae Jung for sedition, who was in jail facing execution. (Note 1)
Following Reagan's election in November 1980, Chun started pressing the U.S. for an official invitation to meet with Reagan, looking to use such a visit to bolster his political legitimacy and place bilateral relations on a new and more positive course. Reagan, who had campaigned on a platform of revitalizing America's Cold War alliances against the global communist threat, was open to such a meeting. Inviting Chun to Washington turned, however, on the outcome of behind the scenes negotiations conducted by Reagan's National Security Advisor Richard Allen, who had taken a personal interest in the fate of Kim Dae Jung. As recounted by Don Oberdorfer, the Carter administration had sought to place pressure on the Chun government to spare Kim, but had little leverage to use. Chun's deep desire for a meeting with Reagan provided this leverage. In talks with Lt. General Chung Ho Yong (commander of Korean special forces who played a role in the brutal Kwangju massacre) that lasted until January 2, 1981, just weeks before Reagan's inauguration, Allen was able to secure an agreement under which Kim's life would be spared in return for the invitation to Chun and a new start to bilateral relations. Chun carried out his part of the deal on January 21, releasing Kim and lifting martial law. (Note 2)
These documents, when viewed in conjunction with what is now known about the quiet diplomacy that set the stage for this meeting, reveal the delicate balancing act Reagan's advisors were following in seeking to square Reagan's eagerness to reinvigorate the security relationship with Seoul with the need to avoid giving the impression that the administration uncritically approved all of Chun's repressive policies and actions over the past year. While Reagan rolled out the welcome mat to Chun, his advisors then and later were well aware of the danger that without some progress on human rights and political liberalization in South Korean, there was a real risk of the country falling once more into turmoil. The briefing papers prepared for Reagan portray Chun in a positive light as a forceful leader who has brought stability to South Korea, glossing over the repressive actions taken by his government, and as someone who is willing and able to learn from the U.S. Chun's desire for reassurances from Reagan that the security alliance remains strong and that U.S. forces will not be withdrawn from the peninsula mirror the administration's security objectives for the talks.
Regarding political liberalization and improving human rights, the stress is on offering advice on these topics in private, and avoiding "less gratuitous public advice on internal affairs." This approach might be summed up in Reagan's comment to Chun during their meeting: Expressing his appreciation of all that Chun had done, Reagan said that "together the ROK and the United States must consider the question of human rights in the proper manner." However, this could also mean avoiding any appearance of praising Chun too much in public, as seen in Haig's objection to a "political" section in the communiqué issued after the meeting and drafted by Chun's advisors endorsing Chun's actions to restore political stability in Korea. Showing that quiet diplomacy can work both ways, Haig argued that Reagan's action in inviting Chun "spoke louder than words," and that the administration wanted to refrain from public comment on Korea's internal affairs.
The public face of the Reagan administration's policy pointed to communism and radicalism as the real enemy, arguing that where such regimes exist – behind "the bamboo and iron curtains," as Reagan put it to Chun - the worst human rights abuses occur. Furthermore, Reagan and his advisors believed that support and engagement were much more likely to result in advancing human rights in authoritarian regimes than public criticism. Examples of this approach, and efforts by the State Department to bring some nuance into the administration's foreign policy, can be seen in other places, such as the Philippines, where Secretary of State George P. Shultz played a key role in moderating Reagan's support for Marcos.
As these documents reveal, there was awareness at least within the State Department that the U.S. had to follow a careful path in publicly reinvigorating the bilateral political and security relationship with South Korea while keeping a close eye on Chun's domestic policies and their impact on political stability and liberalization. There were also U.S. domestic pressures to deal with, as Chun's repressive policies had a fair share of critics in Congress and the public. At the time and later, Reagan's warm public welcome of Chun engendered deep mistrust and suspicion of the U.S. for its role in legitimizing the government that carried out the Kwangju massacre and threatened the execution of Kim Dae Jung, and so feeding anti-Americanism among those struggling for political reform in Korea. In the end, this mixture of strong public support joined with private encouragement for political liberalization brought mixed results. Before leaving office in 1987, Chun would support direct presidential elections, and his government reached agreement with the opposition on a new constitution to enact this, with a term limit of five years. However, Chun also worked to secure the election of his hand-picked successor, Roh Tae Woo. The Korean courts gave their judgment on the Reagan policy in 1996 when Chun was sentenced to death (later pardoned by Kim Dae Jung) for his role in the coup and Kwangju massacre.
Document 1: Memorandum, Richard Allen to President Reagan, January 29, 1981, Subject: President Chun of Korea, with attached cover memorandum, Donald Gregg to Allen, same date. [MDR Reagan Library]
This document provides a two-page overview of the Chun visit to brief Reagan on the political situation in Korea and Chun's background. The tone is set with the first sentence: "Your meeting with President Chun is an important milestone in American relations with the Republic of Korea." Allen stresses that the meeting will validate and legitimize Chun's leadership in a way no other event could do, and will usher in a less contentious era of U.S.-South Korean relations, compared to the past decade. The military coup that brought Chun to power following the assassination of Park Chung Hee is somewhat glossed over, as Allen notes that Chun had "quickly and forcefully move to establish himself as Korea's leader," bringing South Korea a new constitution, a new political system and a new sense of morality grounded in Chun's military background. Still, Chun can "learn a great deal" from meeting with Reagan and other U.S. leaders, Allen believes. After sketching in Chun's military background, Allen observes that the Korean leader seems "at ease with the power he wields," is a quick learner and seemed to be quickly developing a "deft political touch." As evidence of the latter, Allen notes the unconditional invitation Chun issued on January 12 to North Korean leader Kim Il Sung to visit South Korea. Allen believes that Chun will try to broaden his base of support beyond the military, a goal that his meeting with Reagan will help advance. Allen lays out the following key points that Reagan needs to stress to Chun: 1) that Reagan has no intention of withdrawing U.S. forces from Korea; 2) that the U.S. will do all it can to help South Korea manage its current economic downturn; 3) that the U.S. will not make any unilateral moves towards Pyongyang; and 4) that the U.S.-South Korean relations is of "personal interest and importance" to Reagan.
Document 2: Briefing Book: The Official Visit of Korean President Chun, February 1-3, 1981 [FOIA - State]
These selections from the State Department's briefing book for President Reagan provide Secretary of State Alexander Haig's Scope Paper summarizing the key objectives and policy issues surrounding the meeting, a "Talking Paper for Conduct of the Summit Meeting," and briefing papers on the Korean Economic Outlook and U.S. nuclear power cooperation with Seoul. The scope paper repeats points made by Allen regarding Chun's key objectives of normalizing bilateral relations, consolidating and legitimizing his new government, reassurance that the U.S. security guarantee remains strong, defusing criticism about recent South Korean political developments, and reviving investor confidence in the South Korean economy. As laid out by Haig, Reagan's objectives were essentially to give Chun the reassurances and support he needs. Haig's memorandum also echoes the largely positive evaluation of Chun as a leader. Regarding Korea's future political development, Haig notes that key military officers, business men and other leaders expect the U.S. "to play a quiet but firm role in working for political stability." Chun himself is portrayed as being ready to consider U.S. advice "when it is offered privately," but Haig also notes that the Koreans expect that the Reagan administration "will offer less gratuitous public advice on internal affairs."
Document 3: Talking Paper for the Conduct of the Summit Meeting, ca January 1981 [MDR Reagan Library]
This is a full version of a document that is redacted in the briefing book found at document 2. The redaction, on page 2 of the document, addresses the need to brief Chun on U.S. nuclear deployments and non-proliferation concerns, noting that the U.S. "had clear understandings with President Park in this regard;" i.e., South Korea's agreement to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Document 4: Cable, SecState to Amembassy Seoul, February 5, 1981, Subject: Korea President Chun's Visit – The Secretary's Meeting at Blair House [FOIA-State]
Though redacted, this cable reporting on Secretary of State Haig's meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Shin Yong Lho on February 1st at Blair House reveals the careful balancing act the Reagan administration was carrying out in trying to put relations with Seoul back on a firmer footing while not making any public statements that could be seen as too fulsome in praise of Chun. This is seen in the brief exchange (partially redacted) about the draft joint communiqué to be issued following the Reagan-Chun meeting. The original Korean draft had contained a "political" (quotation marks in the original) section endorsing Chun's actions to restore political stability in Korea. Apparently Haig had objected to this, arguing that Reagan's action in inviting Chun "spoke louder than words," and that the administration wanted to refrain from public comment on Korea's internal affairs. Turning to security issues, Haig assured the South Koreans that the U.S. would maintain and improve its forces in Korea, including its nuclear weapons stationed there, but (picking up on a theme Haig had apparently raised earlier with Chun on the ride from Andrews AFB), South Korea had to grasp the importance of continued cooperation with America's non-proliferation policies (i.e., refrain from seeking a South Korean nuclear capability).Haig completed his remarks by seeking to reassure the South Koreans about the administration's desire to work with Seoul on addressing its economic ills, including providing assistance through foreign military sales credits and weapons supply, and that the U.S. .in pursuing its common strategic concerns with China over the "polar bear" (likely a cryptic reference to Russia), would take Korean views into account.
Document 5: Memorandum of Conversation, Subject: Summary of the President's Meeting with President Chun Doo Hwan of the Republic of Korea, February 2, 1981, 11:20 – 12:05 P.M., Cabinet Room, with Cover Memorandum, Richard V. Allen to President Reagan, February 6, 1981, Subject: Your Meeting with President Chun of Korea.[MDR-Reagan Library]
This memorandum of conversation, prepared by NSC staffer Donald Gregg, summarizes the meeting between Reagan and Chun on February 2nd, a meeting that Allen believed was very successful. In an interesting aside, Allen notes that "Human rights survives as a concept, but in a broadened context." The meeting itself, following a brief gathering in the Oval Office, included Vice President Bush, Secretary of State Haig, Secretary of Defense Weinberger, Chief of Staff James Baker, and Ambassador to Korea William Gleysteen, while Chun's advisors included Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Planning Byong Hyun Shin, Foreign Minister Shin Yong Lho and Korean ambassador Yong Shik Kim. Reagan began the meeting by basically giving Chun most of what he hoped to secure from the meeting, calling the visit the opportunity to reaffirm the bilateral relationship, restore the alliance, and stating that his administration would not withdraw any forces from South Korea. Reagan further announced that he wanted to resume the Security Consultative meetings between the two nations that had been postponed due to the political situation in Korea, and stated his support for Chun's recent invitation to Kim Il Sung to visit Seoul. Hitting another talking point, Reagan assured Chun that the U.S. would only deal with North Korea in coordination with South Korea. Thanking Reagan, Chun said "I take your words as a gift, and they will allow me to return home with an easy mind." Chun then began a detailed analysis of the military situation in Asia and on the peninsula, arguing for the need for continued U.S. support and assistance to South Korea both militarily and economically. Reagan expressed his understanding of the burden South Korea was bearing and promised to work to increase U.S. military aid to the country, including the sale of F-16 fighters.
Turning to Korea's political situation, Chun laid out in essence the defense for his policies and actions over the past year. Noting that Korea had experienced "only varying degrees of success" in transplanting American democracy, Chun expressed his appreciation for Reagan's view that each nation "exists under special circumstances." In a thinly-veiled criticism of the Carter presidency, Chun noted that in the 1970s several countries close to the U.S. had succumbed to communism, due in part he felt to inconsistency in U.S. foreign policy, but that U.S. policy was now much clearer under Reagan. Turning to human rights, Chun asserted that Korea "highly valued" these and morality, but also argued that in Korea's precarious military situation, with North Korea forces "as close to Seoul as Andrews Air Force Base is to Washington," and the tense situation along the DMZ, past American comments (i.e., Carter's) had caused confusion in Korea. Chun asserted that peace and order had been restored in South Korea, and that his government had taken effective steps in response to the Korean people's desire for "an end to turbulence." For his part, Reagan expressed his appreciation of all that Chun had done, stating that "together the ROK and the United States must consider the question of human rights in the proper manner." Suggesting the viewpoint that should guide this "proper manner," Reagan noted that in the past the U.S. has seemed to ignore the worse violators of human rights, "most of whom are to be found behind the bamboo and iron curtains."
Document 6a and Document 6b: Cable, SecState to Amembassy Seoul, February 6, 1981, Subject: ROK President Chun's Meeting with the Secretary at the State Department [Two versions of this document are provided. The second document, while released in full, has some illegible segments. A transcription of the illegible sections is attached to the document. Both FOIA-State]
This cable reports on Secretary of State Haig's discussions with President Chun and his foreign Minister at the State Department on the afternoon of February 2, following the meeting between Reagan and Chun recorded in document 4 above. For Haig, the meeting provided an opportunity to make sure any of Chun's concerns that had not be adequately discussed in the meeting with Reagan be addressed. The bulk of the meeting was devoted to discussion of Seoul's economic problems and common security concerns. For example, Chun suggested Tokyo should bear a greater share of the security burden in Asia, one way being for Tokyo to extend up to a billion dollars in loans to Seoul. Stressing again one of the administration's key concerns, Haig assured Chun that Seoul could count on the U.S. as a source of nuclear supplies and technology for its nuclear power program, and expressed America's appreciation for Korea's adherence to a non-proliferation policy. While discussing the Reagan administration's goal of reinvigorating its alliances against the global communist threat, Haig also sought to ease any concerns Chun may harbor about how far the U.S. was willing to go in pursuing a strategic engagement with Beijing aimed at containing the Soviet threat. (These are the sections deleted from the first document.) Finally, Haig reassured Chun that the U.S. would not engage in any direct official talks with North Korea without the participation of Seoul, and commiserated with the Korean leader about the difficulties in controlling the actions of private citizens in this regard, or other allies. In this connection, Chun hoped that the U.S. would urge Japan (in connection with recent visits by Japanese politicians to North Korea) to "refrain from encouraging North Korean ambitions."
Document 7: Cable, SecState to Amembassy Seoul, September 3, 1981, Subject: South Korea: President Chun's "Democratic Welfare" Society and Prospects for Stability [FOIA-State]
This summary of a recent INR study analyzes Chun's reform policies and their prospects for success. Chun's goal is a "democratic welfare" society that would adapt selected western democratic practices to Korea's authoritarian political system, with its roots in the Confucian tradition, and to lay the basis for a durable political order led by a strong president who is responsive to public needs and hopes. Positive steps in this direction include progress in reforming the electoral process, working toward a more cooperative National Assembly, and creating new political parties. Ultimate success, however, will depend on reviving the South Korean economy and arranging for the peaceful transfer of power at the end of Chun's administration. "Failure in either regard could lead to serious instability and give North Korea an opportunity to invade the South."
Document 8: Cable, SecState to Amembassy Seoul, September 4, 1981, Subject: South Korea: Government Response to Student Opposition Role [FOIA – State]
This cable summarizes an INR assessment of the role being played by the student opposition to Chun's government and how Chun plans to respond to this challenge. The INR study concluded that student opposition to Chun's government "remains the greatest immediate threat to political stability in the Republic of Korea." Having served as the catalyst for the overthrow of the Korean government twice in the past 20 years, student dissidents were seen as being the "least amenable" to Chun's efforts to secure cooperation with his "New Era" policy. One of Chun's key political goals is to create an "atmosphere" of dialogue and responsiveness to replace the more confrontational stance marking the last years of Park Chung Hee's rule and the interim military government following the 1979 coup. INR sees Chun's strategy for doing this as two-pronged: a reform program geared to defuse and resolve contentious issues before they become unmanageable, combined with tight control over opposition activities. So far, this approach seemed to be working in limiting student protests and stopping the development of bread-based support for student causes. However, economic problems or any move by Chun's regime to a more restrictive and dictatorial approach could foster a "destabilizing" coalition between students and other parts of the opposition. For the near term, this is not viewed as a likely threat.
1. For a good narrative analysis of these events, see Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Basic Books, 1997, 2001), Chapters 4 and 5, passim.
2. See Oberdorfer, op. cit., pp. 135-136.