The Korean War may finally be coming to a close, with North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons programs and reunification for the Korean Peninsula in the works.
Yet, as North Korea begins its transition out of communism, the effects of the ideology based in atheism and struggle have also taken hold in different ways in South Korea.
For many residents in South Korea who feel they have slowly watched their country fall under the influence of the communist North, this is a harsh reality; and it has been a key target in regular mass protests of conservatives in Seoul, South Korea that garner little media attention.
To gain a deeper understanding of the perspectives behind the protests, and of the concerns held by South Korea’s conservative community, I met with the editor of a book, “The Grievous Destiny Of Two Presidents,” written by a mysterious figure who uses the pseudonym Sol Chang, that has played an influential role in the South Korean conservative movement.
The editor also uses the pseudonym Jae-young Kim, and he told a story of how an assassination led to a military coup and a change in power; and how the leader of an armed communist uprising, loyal to North Korea, became president of the South.
Assassination of Park
To understand this story, we need to go back to Oct. 26, 1979, when President Park Chung-hee was assassinated at a safe house in the presidential compound operated by South Korea’s equivalent of the CIA, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA).
Park Chung-hee was shot in the chest and head by Kim Jae-gyu, the KCIA director, and the president’s security chief. The president’s chauffeur and four of his bodyguards were also killed. Kim was later hanged for the crime.
The assassination brought an end to Park Chung-hee’s 18-year military dictatorship, and it’s still unclear whether the murders were an impulsive act or part of a coup d’etat launched by the South Korean military and intelligence complex.
What is known is that a coup d’etat did follow. On Dec. 12, 1979, South Korean Army major general and chief of the Defense Security Command, Chun Doo-hwan, took the unelected seat of president after the assassination through a coup d’état.
Chun Doo-hwan siezed the presidential seat from Acting President Choi Kyu-ha, and ordered the arrest of the Korean Army Chief of Staff, Jeong Seung-hwa, whom he accused of being involved in the assassination of Park Chung-hee. The military coup included arrests of several other top military leaders, and armed engagements between loyalist and rebel troops in the capital.
Just several months after Chun Doo-hwan’s coup, an armed uprising occurred that would help him take the seat of president, and thereby escape repercussions for his military coup.
From May 18 to 27, 1980, a group stole firearms from police stations, and used the weapons to launch an armed uprising that would kill an estimated 606 people. According to the editor Kim, the “5-18” Gwangju Uprising is the key piece in understanding today’s situation in South Korea.
Chun Doo-hwan violently put down the uprising, yet the narrative of what took place is still not solid in Korean history. Many on the left refer to it as a “democratizing” movement. Those on the right regard it as a student revolt.
Yet according to Kim, it may have been something more nefarious. Many defectors from North Korea have said that the North Korean regime had sent commandos into the South, and it was they who helped launch the uprising. It was also widely rumored at the time that this was the case, and it caused Chun Doo-hwan to expand martial law in the country.
Kim alleges, however, that all of this was intentional. He said the uprising took place through a deal struck between Chun Doo-hwan and then-North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.
“Chun Doo-hwan was then the army general, and he staged a coup. So he has to become president. If he did not become the president, his destiny was to be sentenced to death,” said Kim.
At the same time, he said, the United States did not recognize Chun Doo-hwan’s leadership.
“The only way he could become president was like this,” said Kim, referring to the Gwangju Uprising. “If some very severe uprising occurs in South Korea, and if he successfully subdued that uprising, he could become a very comfortable leader of South Korea, and he can stigmatize the other politicians as incompetent.”
Regardless of whether the narrative is true, Chun Doo-hwan officially became president that same year, on Sept. 1, 1980.
This took place following a series of other odd incidents. In June 1980, the National Assembly was dissolved under Chun Doo-hwan’s orders. He then created a junta-like Special Committee for National Security Measures and made himself a member. Then, in August 1980, acting president Choi Kyu-hah resigned, which cleared the way for new presidential elections.
When the elections were held, Chun Doo-hwan was the sole candidate.
The oddities of the case didn’t end there, however. A leader of the Gwangju Uprising was Kim Dae-jung, who was sentenced to death in 1980. Before the execution, however, he was given immunity by Chun Doo-hwan.
Several years later, the other democratization leader Kim Young-sam, who was the rival and friend of Kim Dae-jung, mysteriously coalesced the then ruling Party Chun Doo hwan’s friends led, and took the presidential seat from 1992 to 1997.
And as if history was repeating itself, the former president Chun Doo-hwan was put on trial and sentenced to death in 1996 for violence committed under him during the Gwangju Uprising. At the end of his presidential term, the IMF crisis occurred in a manner that raised some suspicions, and his democratic friend Kim Dae-jung was elected as next President. And, just as before, only with the roles now switched, Kim Dae-jung pardoned Chun Doo-hwan.
Then, as if finalizing the last stage of a long deal, the South Korean constitution was changed in 1987 with language about a “democratic reform,” a phrase used by North Korea to refer to the spread of communism. Kim and many other conservatives in South Korea take this as being the last stage in a process that has allowed North Korea to subvert the political system of South Korea.
This series of incidents has set the stage on which many in South Korea interpret today’s politics, including the more recent trial and imprisonment of former president Park Geun-hye, who was succeeded by the current president, Moon Jae-in. These incidents have also set the stage for their interpretation of communist beliefs that have infiltrated political policies, education, and entertainment in South Korea.
A previous version of this article misnamed the Gwangju Uprising leader and former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who was sentenced to death in 1980 and was president from 1998 to 2003. The Epoch Times regrets the errors.