South Korean President Is Assassinated Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The assassination of Park Chung Hee, the longest-serving head of state in the history of the Republic of Korea, indirectly made possible a process of democratization in that country. The election and accession to power of Kim Young Sam as president in February, 1993, completed the process.

Summary of Event

Korea was occupied by Japan for the first half of the twentieth century, attaining liberation only at the end of World War II. The geography of the country, a peninsula acting as a kind of land bridge to mainland Asia, then made it the focus of Cold War struggle. Socialist powers led by China and the Soviet Union and capitalist nations led by the United States competed for influence in the region for the rest of the twentieth century and beyond. The supposedly temporary division of Korea along the thirty-eighth parallel after World War II was fixed in place when elections were held only in the South in May of 1948. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) was inaugurated on August 15 of that year, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) was proclaimed soon after. Assassinations and attempts;Park Chung Hee Democracy;South Korea [kw]South Korean President Is Assassinated (Oct. 26, 1979) [kw]Korean President Is Assassinated, South (Oct. 26, 1979) [kw]President Is Assassinated, South Korean (Oct. 26, 1979) [kw]Assassinated, South Korean President Is (Oct. 26, 1979) Assassinations and attempts;Park Chung Hee Democracy;South Korea [g]East Asia;Oct. 26, 1979: South Korean President Is Assassinated[03740] [g]Koreas;Oct. 26, 1979: South Korean President Is Assassinated[03740] [c]Crime and scandal;Oct. 26, 1979: South Korean President Is Assassinated[03740] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 26, 1979: South Korean President Is Assassinated[03740] Park Chung Hee Kim Jaegyu Cha Chi Chol

The Korean War followed between 1950 and 1953. More than one million people died in this conflict between socialist forces based in the North assisted by the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army and capitalist forces based in the South assisted by United Nations troops. The real tragedy of this war was that it settled nothing. A cease-fire was signed on July 27, 1953, but a low-level state of war between the two Koreas, still separated at the thirty-eighth parallel, continued.

Syngman Rhee was the first president of South Korea. He held power from 1948 to 1960, when a student revolt forced him into exile in Hawaii. He is generally considered to have been elitist, corrupt, and simply too old (eighty-five by the time he left office) to provide the kind of leadership required. Park Chung Hee seized power by means of a bloodless military coup on May 16, 1961. Under his strong leadership, South Korea became an economic power in the region, but the increasingly autocratic nature of his regime made him many enemies.

In the end, even old friends turned against Park. Both Park and his assassin, Kim Jaegyu, had been officers in the Japanese army during World War II and had remained close associates since those days. Kim’s motives for the killing have never been fully understood, but most analysts believe that policy disagreements played a major role.

The first attempt on Park’s life occurred in 1974 at the National Theater in Seoul. A radical South Korean based in Japan charged into the hall, shooting wildly. He missed Park but killed a high school girl singing in the chorus as well as Park’s wife. After this incident, Park became increasingly sensitive to any opposition. Dissatisfaction in the country in the late 1970’s was fed by a slowing economy caused by the Iranian revolution and the doubling of the price of oil. Perhaps most important, Park felt threatened by the global thaw in Cold War tension and by demands in South Korea for more democracy and rights for workers. Park responded to these pressures with violent and repressive measures that created widespread unrest. Kim Jaegyu was apparently attempting to be a voice for dissidents in Park’s inner circle.

Park had been a staunch ally of the United States since coming to power and had contributed thousands of South Korean troops to the Vietnam War. When the war ended in 1975 and the United States normalized relations with China, Park feared that he would be sacrificed for the sake of better U.S. relations with the communist giant. President Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M. had reduced American troop levels in South Korea in the early 1970’s, and President Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy pushed a plan to withdraw altogether when he came into office.

In August of 1979, the Y. H. Trading Company in South Korea shut its doors without notice and the owner absconded with all revenues. About 170 workers protested their treatment and were attacked by police. President Carter publicly referred to the South Korean government’s actions as “brutal and excessive,” which greatly encouraged the domestic opposition. The week before Park’s assassination, labor and student disturbances broke out in Pusan and Masan.

On the night of October 26, there was a dinner at a safe house on the grounds of the South Korean government offices in Seoul. In addition to Park and Kim, four others were present: Cha Chi Chol, Park’s bodyguard; Kim Kye-won, the chief of the executive secretariat; Sim Soo-bong, a famous female singer; and Shin Jae-soon, a student and model. The six sat on the floor in traditional Korean fashion around a low table in a small room. A large quantity of scotch was reportedly consumed.

During the dinner, Kim Jaegyu was criticized severely by Park and Cha for his willingness to seek compromise with the dissidents. At a certain point, early in the evening, Kim left the others to retrieve his personal sidearm. At that time, he also instructed his men waiting outside the room to kill Park’s other bodyguards, also outside, when they heard shots. He returned to the dinner, cursed, called Cha a worm, and shot him. As Cha attempted to crawl out of the room, Kim shot Park a number of times. Both men died at the scene. Following Kim’s instructions, his accomplices killed three of Park’s other bodyguards waiting outside.

Kim was apprehended in a matter of hours. Major General Chun Doo Hwan, Chun Doo Hwan chief of the Defense Security Command and a longtime Park loyalist, was put in charge of the investigation into the killings. According to the 1972 constitution, Prime Minister Choi Kyu Hah Choi Kyu Hah was to take over for Park as president, but he did not last long. Moves toward democratic reform were short-circuited by a peaceful coup engineered by General Chun and General Roh Tae Woo. Roh Tae Woo Chun assumed effective control on December 12, 1979, and finally declared martial law on May 17, 1980, to remove any remaining doubt regarding his total authority.

Significance

Debate continues in South Korea regarding the true motives behind Kim Jaegyu’s action. While waiting in custody to be hanged, which he was on May 24, 1980, Kim wrote a diary in which he claimed to be acting on behalf of the forces of democracy and the rights of poor people and workers. Prominent opposition politicians, including Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, signed a petition immediately after his conviction to try to stop the execution. A government commission was formed in 2004 to reevaluate this incident and others during the Park, Chun, and Roh regimes.

The fact that there was no follow-up plan to seize power after the assassination seemed to indicate an impulsive attack on Kim’s part. The opposition party in South Korea, the Grand National Party, which inherited most of Park’s supporters, was led by the former president’s daughter, Park Geun-hye. Naturally, people of this conservative political persuasion disapproved of portraying Kim Jaegyu as a hero. Others pointed out that, up until the assassination, Kim was functioning as the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) chief and was directly involved in whatever excesses were being committed by the Park government. Assassinations and attempts;Park Chung Hee Democracy;South Korea

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chun, Soonok. They Are Not Machines: Korean Women Workers and Their Fight for Democratic Trade Unionism in the 1970’s. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003. Analysis of South Korean women workers, mostly in the textile industry, and their fight for democratic trade unionism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cumings, Bruce. Korea’s Place in the Sun. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. History of South Korea in the twentieth century that challenges many conventional assumptions from a liberal point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kim, Hyung A. Korea’s Development Under Park Chung Hee: Rapid Industrialization, 1961-1979. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. Balanced narrative outlining the paradoxical nature of the economic rise of South Korea during Park’s tenure as head of state, based on interviews with principal policy makers in his regime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Byeong-cheon, ed. Developmental Dictatorship and the Park Chung-hee Era: The Shaping of Modernity in the Republic of Korea. Dumont, N.J.: Homa & Sekey Books, 2006. Collection of essays by twelve noted Korean social scientists that examine the relationship between the economic miracle under Park’s rule and the social repression.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. Rev. ed. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Journalistic-style account of the separation of the two Koreas and the struggle between them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Park, Chung Hee. Korea Reborn: A Model for Development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979. Firsthand account of the principles and guiding philosophy behind the Korean economic miracle by the man who created it.

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