Military coup sees a successful end

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Military coup sees a successful end


Park Chung Hee, left, and Kim Jong-pil chat during a year-end party in December 1961. By then, Park was chairman of the National Reconstruction Supreme Council and Kim was the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, now the National Intelligence Service. Provided by the National Archives of Korea

May 16,1961 - the day we pushed ahead with our plan for revolution - was a tumultuous 24 hours, full of both risks and opportunities.

Park Chung Hee broke into Seoul with the Marine forces, and our armed forces took control of Seoul and the Army headquarters. We aired the success of our revolution on the Korean Broadcasting System, and by doing so, we transformed our military revolution into irreversible history.

But our revolution was still incomplete. There was a sense of uncertainty over whether we could finalize our fight.

Even though we took control of the military headquarters in Seoul, Carter Magruder, the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, was still highly critical of our movement.

Army Chief of Staff Chang Do-young remained ambivalent and did not provide his outright support. Making things more complicated, First Army Cmdr. Lee Han-rim emerged as the most damning critic of our revolution.

In 1961, the commanding authority for the Korean armed forces belonged to Commander Magruder. He saw our revolution as a direct challenge and disregard for his authority. He planned a counterattack on our forces.

But it was President Yun Bo-seon who was opposed to that idea, fearing its potential bloodshed.

While Yun was president, much authority fell under Prime Minister Chang Myon because the political system was run on a parliamentary system. But Chang was nowhere to be seen for 54 hours after his escape from his home. But his absence worked in our favor.

It was the military manpower of Lee Han-rim’s First Army that most concerned me. On May 17, a day after our revolution, rumors spread that Lee would mobilize all his men under his command to strike back.

The Army under Lee’s command consisted of five military corps and 20 divisions. Our revolutionary forces had merely 3,600 soldiers - less than the number of soldiers in a single division - and a sense of anxiety among our forces soon became apparent.

Meanwhile, Army Chief of Staff Chang remained ambivalent. While he agreed with our cause and was named the chairman of the military reform committee, he kept his distance monitoring the U.S. military and how the situations would unfold.

Like Chang, many military officials maintained a wait-and-see attitude.

With looming uncertainly and anxiety, we decided it was time to arrest Lee Han-rim to secure our final victory. We needed to move first before the opposition forces gained strength and moved to counterattack.

Park Chung Hee and Lee Han-rim had known each other since their days serving in the Manchukuo Imperial Army [the armed forces of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, or Manchuria]. After graduating from the Manchukuo Army, both went on to enlist in the Imperial Japanese Army. In short, both landed on an elite course.

While Park graduated at the top of his class from the Manchukuo Imperial Army and Lee second, it was Lee who came out on top from the Japanese military academy, trailed by Park.

Park later told Lee in jest, “You thought I would always lag behind you?”

In fact, Park had already told Lee of his plans for revolution and asked him to join. But Lee brushed off the proposal, saying Park would never put it into action. For his far-reaching authority as the head of the First Army, Lee was always our No. 1 surveillance target.

Fully aware of the importance in spying on him, I recruited many officials from the First Army to our forces to eavesdrop on Lee. After our actions on May 16, Lee said, “The military revolution would have never seen success without my approval.”

To us, Lee’s remark was unacceptable, and by then it became clear to me that arresting him was necessary. I gave the order for his arrest and no one protested.

Everyone had put their lives on the line for the revolution, so no words were necessary - only action.

An arrest squad was sent to Lee’s military residence and entered the gate without any difficulty, as guards there let them it. The man overseeing the military guards at Lee’s home had already been won over.

Lee was taken from his residence in Wonju, Gangwon, where the First Army headquarters were located, to Seoul and detained.

On May 18, just two days after our sweep, we completed our revolution. While Lee was transported to Seoul, where he would be detained, young military academy cadets in ceremonial dress organized a street rally in central Seoul in support of the military revolution.

About 800 young men took to the streets in a long march that left a lasting impression on the public. The scene led many to realize that the revolution had now taken root.

Standing on a podium before the young cadets, Chang, the Army’s chief of staff, finally declared his support for the revolution.

“We are now here to write a new history and rebuild our nation by ridding the country of corrupt and incompetent politicians,” he said in his address.

Air Force Academy cadets followed suit the next day, coming out to streets in Seoul to march in their uniforms. Navy Academy cadets did the same in Busan, all in support of our revolution.

At 12:30 p.m. on May 18, Prime Minister Chang finally appeared before the public, ending his two-day hideout at Carmel Monastery in Hyehwa-dong, Seoul.

He approved of all the measures declared by the revolutionary committee, including martial law, and announced the resignations of all his cabinet members - it was just nine months since the Chang Myon administration had taken power.

By then, I had not slept for over three days, and I finally walked toward home.

On my way, I saw people at Yongsan Station hurrying to get on a train before the 10:00 p.m. curfew declared under martial law.

The people were wholeheartedly cooperating with our new set of rules and principles. I was moved just watching them.

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