Reflections on the coups

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Reflections on the coups

The author is a Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Among the many diplomats in Washington specializing in Korea, 90-year-old Robert Rich, former U.S. Ambassador to Belize, is one of those who witnessed all the important events in the Korea-U.S. relations. He participated in the Korean War as a newly commissioned naval officer on a U.S. destroyer in 1952. The political affairs desk at the U.S. Embassy in Korea was his first post as a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State.

He oversaw the United Nations election monitoring work in Chuncheon, Gangwon, for the March 15 election in 1960 and reported the bribery and illegal activities to the United States. At the time of the April 19 Revolution, he was at the scene of the police firing at college students in front of the presidential compound and escaped with the protesters into a building to send a telegram about the situation. In the following year, he accompanied Acting Ambassador Marshall Green as a secretary for meetings with Combined Forces Commander Carter Magruder and President Yun Po-sun on the day of the May 16 coup.

Former Ambassador Rich served as a Korea desk chief in the Department of State through the four years of the Jimmy Carter administration. He handled the Korea Gate, a case of illegal lobbying of the U.S. Congress, and struggled to have Carter’s campaign promise to withdraw U.S. Forces Korea retracted. The assassination of President Park Chung Hee, the Dec. 12 military insurrection in 1979 and the May 18 Democratization Movement in 1980 followed in Korea.

On Dec. 12 last year, he attended a seminar marking the 40th anniversary of the Dec. 12 coup hosted by the Korea Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and explained why the United Stated did not actively intervene in the two military coups in Korea. The Korean leaders at the time refused Washington’s suggestion to have the forces on the demarcation line move southward to suppress the coup.

The situation was similar for the May 16 and Dec. 12 coups. For the May 16 coup, Prime Minister Chang Myon was hiding, and President Yun Po-sun refused Ambassador Green and Commander Magruder’s proposal to move the unit on the front. For the Dec. 12 coup, President Choi Kyu-hah could not be contacted, and Defense Minister Roh Jae-hyun refused the proposal by U.S. Ambassador William Gleysteen and Commander John Wickham. They had the same reasoning for refusal: leaving the demarcation line would lead to a greater risk of invasion by the North Korean forces, and large-scale bloodshed could not be avoided among the Korean troops.

SAIS Professor James Person said that the United States could not mobilize U.S. Forces in Korea at the time due to the concerns about the U.S. interference in domestic affairs and infringement on sovereign rights. “However, proposing to move the front-line division to the south reflects how much interest the United States had in Korea’s democracy,” he added.

But once written, history does not allow assumption. Accountability of the United States for the two coups is still a controversial subject among the scholars of modern history, but it is a secondary issue. The outcomes of the choices were devastating as we had to pave another way for a long time. In the reflection of the old diplomat, one fact that did not change is a threat from North Korea.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 27, Page 32
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