On the eve of a coup that would transform Korea

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On the eve of a coup that would transform Korea

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Former President Park Chung Hee, third from left, then-chairman of the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction, made his first official inspection of the main spy agency, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which is now called the National Intelligence Service, on Jan. 20, 1962, accompanied by agency chief Kim Jong-pil, far left. Provided by Kim Jong-pil’s secretary’s office

I asked my wife to bring me military uniforms on the night of May 14, 1961. It was a cocky color uniform that I was stripped of three months earlier for demanding the dismissals of military leaders [for corruption and incompetence]. I was forcibly discharged from the military as a result. The next morning, I was about to embark on a journey wearing this uniform - not knowing whether I would make it back home.

I was overwhelmed by a feeling I couldn’t even describe. On a fine spring day, I was determined to put my life on the line to make the revolution successful. I was so filled with a sense of determination that I was ready to sacrifice my life.

I was only 35 and yet my mind bore a maturity from having experienced Japan’s 36-year-colonial rule on the peninsula, a bitter division of the Korean Peninsula and the subsequent 1950-53 Korean War, which I went through as a military official. And yet, I was heavy-hearted because I could lose everything, including my life.

I spent the two previous nights staying awake writing. It was a composition in which I poured my whole life into. It was a declaration of promises by the revolution to the nation.

It was a set of promises declaring the demise of old rules and the establishment of new ones. I kept repeating a saying to myself: “History is not to be read but to be written.”

I was known as a good writer by many at the time. But it took me two days to finish the fateful declaration.

A year earlier, students took to the streets for the April 19 revolution. But that stopped short of fixing the social ills brought in by the ruling Liberty Party under the Syngman Rhee government [Korea’s first elected government]. The Chang Myon administration, which took power following the collapse of the Rhee administration, was utterly incompetent in managing state affairs.

It did not govern the country in a way that would liberate it from chaos and the damages caused by the Korean War. The military, the cornerstone of national security, was ridden with corruption but showed no sign of shame. A wave of student-led protests filled the streets nationwide and the civilian government just stood by.

A sense of chaos and confusion consumed the country. In June 1960, police officers organized a rally against the government. In March of the following year, citizens in Daegu took to the streets carrying torches demanding the repeal of anti-Communist laws. University students organized a rally at Seoul Stadium calling on the authorities to arrange a meeting of students from Seoul and Pyongyang.

All of this was happening less than 10 years after the Korean War, which left the country in total ruins. I was getting more and more anxious every day. A majority of the public felt the same way and hoped for decisive change. Painful memories of the war had faded into oblivion, putting national security at grave risk. But I was not one of those who forgot the pains of the war. I lost half of my fellow 1,300 military academy schoolmates during the war. I was growing firmer in my belief that I could not let incompetent and corrupt politicians govern the country anymore - that I must bring an end to this.

Before moving into action, I concentrated all of my strength to the tip of a pen. I was reminded of a maxim by Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who said, “Life is too short to be little,” which impressed me deeply in my late teens.

The first sentence began like this: “The military, which has been behaving with prudence, is moving to action starting from the dawn of the day to take complete control of the three branches of government.”

The sentence was filled with strength. And I was at the center of the military before the fateful dawn.

I chose anti-Communism as the No. 1 priority for the revolution and as the top national policy. It was a path the Republic of Korea should have been on but increasingly veered from. We were in a situation in which we had to care about national security before anything else.

But there was another reason I chose anti-Communism as the top policy objective. Park Chung Hee had been accused of following Communist ideals. In 1949, he was sentenced to life in prison for being a socialist, which was commuted to a suspended prison term. He may have been confused with socialist ideas at some point but he returned to the military and fought against North Korean Communists during the war. I was very well-aware of his allegiance to the country.

But still many held suspicions that he was Communist and publicly denounced him for being one. Therefore, I judged that I must put the policy against Communism up front to quell any lingering doubts about him.

When Park first read the declaration of promises before it was printed for distribution, he smiled as he read the No.1 priority and said, “You wrote this because of me.”

On the morning of May 15, I stepped out of the house with the declaration in my pocket. My wife, Park Young-ok, escorted me out. She was pregnant with our second child.

“Are you really going to do this?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “If God helps us, we will see each other again.”

She did not say anything but her eyes were welling up. I touched her swollen belly.

“There is a saying that a child born after the death of a father usually turns out to be a son,” I said. “If I do not come back, this baby will be a son. Raise him well and tell him that his father did not die in vain.”

She stood in front of the house watching me leave. I turned back at one point and saw her still standing there shedding tears. It was a desolate spring day filled with roses.

Compiled by Chun Young-gi, Kang Jin-kyu [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]


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