Chief security officer’s authority extends too far
The path toward tragedy began when Cha Ji-cheol was tapped to be chief presidential security officer in 1974, closely serving President Park Chung Hee after first lady Yuk Young-soo’s death.
In that way, it’s actually ironic that she recommended him as the nation’s next security officer.
Cha took part in the May 16 revolution in 1961 and was elected as a lawmaker in 1963 for the sixth National Assembly, going on to serve three more terms.
After he became the chief presidential security officer, he made promotions within the presidential security office as he pleased. The 30th and 33rd Battalions of the Capital Garrison Command, in charge of guarding the Blue House, were promoted to brigades. He appointed a two-star general as deputy chief security officer and even created two more positions meant for one-star generals.
Cha also conducted nonsensical events and a weekly flag-lowering ceremony each Saturday was one of them. At the ceremony, held at the 30th Brigade’s training grounds in Gyeongbok Palace, soldiers and security guards from the Blue House were lined up, and tanks were even deployed.
He entered the ceremony with a leading procession with other guests to music played by a military band.
Ministers, vice ministers, the chairmen of the standing committees in the National Assembly and leaders renowned in their respective fields were all invited to the ceremony. It was where you could see anyone who was anyone in Korea all in one place. Some were curious to see what would happen at the flag-lowering ceremony, though most were forced.
National Assembly Speaker Chung Il-kwon acknowledged that he attended at Cha’s request.
“I won’t allow anyone who interrupts what the president is trying to do,” Cha would say.
“So why bring tanks to the ceremony?” Chung asked.
“Because,” he responded, “it’s a warning for anyone who tries to make trouble.”
Cha once called me to the ceremony, but I knew what he was doing and refused to go.
One day, when we ran into each other at the Blue House, he confronted me about my absence.
“I invited all the important people to the ceremony, like the prime minister and the National Assembly speaker,” he said. “Why aren’t you coming?”
“I’m not at all important,” I replied. “I’m nobody.”
At that time, I was serving as an adviser to the president of the Democratic Republican Party (DRP) after having resigned as prime minister. So when I said I was nobody, it wasn’t completely wrong.
“No, you should come,” he insisted. “You should come and take a look.”
“I’ll come if I get a chance,” I said dismissively, though I never did attend.
Cha wasn’t actually powerful enough to touch me, so eventually he just gave up.
He also formed an absurd organization known as the Presidential Security Committee, which he explained was a new system to protect the president. He headed the group, and the prime minister and the ministers of national defense, justice and interior affairs were all members.
So I visited President Park and talked about it.
“How can this happen?” I asked. “How can Cha Ji-cheol chair the committee above the prime minister? Did you know about this?”
“They said they all agreed,” Park said.
“But you can’t treat the prime minister like that,” I asserted. “You should make them fix it.”
But Park brushed off my concerns. “Let’s let them do what they want since the prime minister agreed.”
I thought he was accepting Cha’s behavior as his way of expressing loyalty, so I said no more about it.
But the committee’s activities made completely no sense. One of them proposed blocking all the windows in the Lotte Hotel in central Seoul simply because guests could look down on the Blue House.
The 37-story hotel, built in 1979, was tallest building in Korea at the time.
It was meant to be taller, with more than 40 floors, but Cha rejected the plan because he said it could pose a threat to the president’s security. I was prime minister at that time and managed to persuade Park to make it 37 floors.
Cha even tried to demolish the radio tower on Mount Namsan built by three private broadcasting companies - now the N Seoul Tower - for the same reason. But I put a stop to that, too.
I was stunned by the news that Cha wanted to block the hotel windows. I knew I had to do something and went to the Blue House. He monitored everyone who came to meet the president, but he still couldn’t stop me. I could meet Park whenever I told the chief presidential secretary.
“Who decided to block the windows [in the hotel] because the guests could look down at the Blue House?” I asked Park. “That’s nonsense. It will be such an inconvenience for guests there. Why did you let them do that?”
“The [presidential security] committee said they’d made the decision, so I agreed,” he replied. “What’s the problem?”
“If you go to Kasumigaseki in Tokyo, there are skyscrapers and they look down on the Imperial Palace, but no one thinks it’s dangerous,” I said. “The distance between those buildings and the palace is 1,200 meters (4,000 feet), and Lotte Hotel is about 2,000 meters from the Blue House.
“You know rifles have an effective range 550 meters; they could never reach the Blue House unless someone brought artillery to the hotel. That only disturbs public sentiment. Why did you approve this?”
He listened to what I had to say and relented to unblock the windows. But in the end, the bullet that killed Park wasn’t fired from the hotel, but in the safety of the Blue House.
Park was aware that Cha was exceeding his authority but condoned his behavior. He never said he was doing the right thing, but he would always advocate for him.
“Let’s wait and see what the chief security officer is doing,” Park would say.
Cha was getting more and more audacious every day, and the president’s divide-and-rule tactics for his subordinates weren’t working properly, causing him to lose control of the balance among his people.
Those who had any influence at the time kept their distance, so Cha had no obstacles in carrying out his agenda.
Compiled by Chun Young-gi, Kim Bong-moon [firstname.lastname@example.org]