Washington, D.C., June 1, 2017 – President Jimmy Carter entered office in 1977 determined to draw down U.S. forces in South Korea and to address that nation’s stark human rights conditions, but he met surprising pushback on these and related issues from both South Korean President Park Chung Hee and his own top American advisers, as described in declassified records published today by the National Security Archive at The George Washington University.
Carter made no secret of his deep misgivings about Park’s suppression of his political opposition. When the two met for a summit in June 1979, Park attempted to turn the tables, lecturing Carter rhetorically: “If dozens of Soviet divisions were deployed in Baltimore, the U.S. Government could not permit its people to enjoy the same freedoms they do now.”
At the same time, senior U.S. officials including Cabinet officers tried to put the brakes on U.S. troop withdrawals and other policy initiatives such as holding tripartite talks with the two Koreas. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael H. Armacost complained to Defense Secretary Harold Brown before the summit that the latter was a “lousy idea,” a “loser” and “gimmicky.” The president faced similar resistance from a range of American officials on the ground in South Korea.
Carter was forced to postpone troop reductions for a time while continuing to press for political liberalization. But his challenge grew appreciably greater after Park’s October 1979 assassination by of the head of the Korean CIA, and a subsequent coup in December of that year by strongman General Chun Doo Hwan.
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How Do You Solve a Problem like (South) Korea? The Carter Years
By Robert A. Wampler, Ph.D.
It should be no surprise that events on the Korean peninsula have presented early challenges for the Trump
For the Carter administration, the rocky course of Korean relations moved from the deep divide between Seoul and Washington created by Carter’s determination to withdraw U.S. forces and his criticism of Park Chung Hee’s human and political rights abuses, to the assassination of Park and subsequent military coup, followed by the rise of coup leader Chun Doo Hwan to the presidency and U.S. concerns over his authoritarian regime centering on the looming execution of South Korean political dissident Kim Dae Jung.
The historical backdrop to the documents posted here today can be sketched
Following a tense and contentious summit meeting with Park in June 1979, the U.S. announced that further withdrawals would be put on hold until 1981. For his part, Park agreed to pursue increased military spending and to take steps to release political prisoners, though he continued to press the U.S. not to criticize publicly his actions against the political opposition, arguing that if given sufficient “running room” he would try to avoid “extreme” actions. (See Document 10)
Park would have little time to take any steps to address U.S. concerns, however, for on October 26, 1979, the director of the South Korean CIA would assassinate him during a dinner which was marked by intense and bitter arguments over Park’s handling of political discontent. In the aftermath of the assassination, once the identity of the assassin was determined, U.S. concerns centered on ensuring that this shock to the Korean political system did not result in political instability that could undermine democracy or tempt North Korea to further shake up conditions on the peninsula.
Hopes for an orderly political transition were dashed, however, when a group of “Young Turk” South Korean political officers, led by ambitious Korean Army general Chun Doo Hwan, staged a coup on December 12. In its aftermath, the limits on U.S. ability to influence political events in South Korea become ever more evident, as Chun, using his authority under martial law, imposed his own crackdown on political dissent, including the arrest of Kim Dae Jung, which was the spark that set off the May 1980 Kwangju uprising. The Chun regime brutally put down this uprising, and many South Koreans still see the U.S. as complicit in the crackdown because of claims made by the Chun government of U.S. support. Kim Dae Jung would be sentenced to death for his alleged role in fomenting the Kwangju uprising, and U.S. efforts to secure leniency for Kim would drive much of U.S. diplomacy with the Chun government (Chun, despite denials of political ambition, would be elected president in August 1980) until the end of the Carter presidency. It would be left to the incoming Reagan administration, which entered office determined to restore the alliance relationship, to finally secure commutation of Kim’s
The documents posted here today come primarily from the Pentagon records of Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, and are supplemented by documents from the Digital National Security Archive collections on U.S.-Korean relations, as well as files obtained from the U.S. National Archives. As secretary of defense, Brown had the unenviable task of being Carter’s point man on defense issues in dealing with Park and then Chun. His role was to advance U.S. policy goals that were less than attractive to the South Korean leadership, as well as to advise President Carter on policy options that the president would find less than ideal.
Among the insights provided by these documents are these:
General John Vessey, the senior U.S. military officer in Seoul, described Park Chung Hee to new president Jimmy Carter as “a lonely man” who seemed to be “withdrawing more and more into himself.” [Document 1]
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael H. Armacost called Carter’s idea for tripartite U.S.-ROK-North Korea talks a “lousy idea,” a “loser” with “atrocious” timing with little chance of success, possibly “ginned up” by the White House PR staff as a Camp David-style TV “spectacular.” [Document 4]
During their summit meeting, Park lectured Carter on human rights: “If dozens of Soviet divisions were deployed in Baltimore, the U.S. Government could not permit its people to enjoy the same freedoms they do now. If these Soviets dug tunnels and sent commando units into the District of Columbia, then U.S. freedoms would be more limited.” [Document 9]
Pentagon analysis of the situation immediately following Park’s assassination warned about the challenges facing the U.S. in trying to influence political developments towards greater democracy, arguing that the U.S., through “sensitive and judicious advice,” may be able to affect developments at the margins. In the short run, Washington needed “to avoid even the appearance of manipulating a puppet.” [Document 11]
South Korean General Lew found it conceivable that a “temporarily deranged” KCIA Director Kim Dae Kyu had decided to kill Park, driven by fears he was going to be replaced because of his “incompetence.” [Document 12]
After the December 12 military coup, Ambassador Gleysteen’s gloomy assessment spoke of how U.S. “missionary work” to guide the new government “seems washed down the drain.” [Document 13]
One Pentagon official referred to coup leader Chun Doo Hwan as the “Pete Dawkins” of the ROK army, a reference to a well known Army officer, who served in Korea in the early 1970s, because of his rapid rise through the ranks and professional achievements. [Document 14]
National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski warned the South Korean ambassador that Chun must avoid letting the Kim Dae Jung case drag out into a “no-win” scenario, noting that this had happened to President Zia in Pakistan when his hand was allegedly forced in the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto [Document 16]
Defense Secretary Brown gave a grim assessment of his final effort to persuade Chun to spare Kim Dae Jung in December 1980: “We have taken our best shot; I hope it is enough.” [Document 18]
*Thanks to Bill Burr for his assistance, especially for providing copies of documents 1 and 16.