Looking Back, Part 1
For many years the military dictator Park Chung-hee, self-proclaimed “president for life” feared assassination, particularly by communists or North Korean agents. His wife was killed in 1974 by an assassin gunning for her husband. Ironically, the deed was finally done by Park’s own head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Kim Kae-won, who was angry at his declining influence over Park and fearful of losing his job. He invited Park to dinner at KCIA headquarters, killed Park and Cha Ji Chui and had his five KCIA henchmen finish off the remaining bodyguards. Almost immediately, all of the culprits were arrested and questioned. The “Friday night massacre” was reportedly plotted and led by Kim alone and was not part of a coup. The assassination was the subject of the controversial black comedy The President’s Last Bang (2005).
The end of the 70s and the early eighties was an interesting time for Korea. The next few posts will give the observations of expats who were in Korea at the time. These come from interviews conducted in Korea in 2007. First, a banker whose story was posted as “More Than One Right Way, Parts 1-2” on February 18 and 25, 2011. Another post about the military dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan appeared as “A Priest’s View of Human Rights in Korea” on May 9, 2010.
On October 27, 1979, I was sitting in my office in our branch bank in Tokyo, where we were getting market information about currency trading. The news came over the Reuter’s telex that South Korean President, Park Chung-hee had been assassinated, and nobody was certain whether Korea’s economy would be totally destabilized or not as a result.
Our loans to Korean companies were backed by letters of credit or letters of guarantee from Korean banks, which required that we present these letters and demand payment in case of a threat to the stability of the country or the companies. We knew that after we presented the letters the Koreans would say, “Thanks for the documents, but we don’t have any money.” But legally, if you didn’t try to get the money back—this was many millions of dollars—you no longer had a valid claim. The documents had to be delivered in person because the documents being lost in the mail in light of the crisis was an obvious defense that might be raised. We checked with the American embassy in Tokyo and the US government had not issued a travel advisory against going to Korea, so I was chosen to go.
Now, at that time it was fascinating to fly to Korea from Japan. Tokyo was the most modern city in the world, even more modern than Singapore then and Korea, in terms of economic development, was in its infancy. As we were flying in, the land we were flying over looked like a moonscape. The mountains that ring Seoul were absolutely devoid of trees – nothing but rocks and clay soil. I was told that the people had cut down all the trees for fuel. An announcement came over the loudspeaker, “Do not take any pictures looking out of the aircraft. Your camera will be subject to seizure if you do. Please respect the military authority and follow all instructions carefully.”
It was a cold, gray day. I arrived at Kimpo Airport, where there were machine guns and military police in khaki uniforms with hats of the shape that airplane pilots wear. They were saying “there” and “there” and pointing at the line snaking in this cold and cavernous arrival hall that reeked of cigarette smoke. The crowd coming in was much smaller than usual because people didn’t want to walk into the eye of a storm. Nobody was just strolling over to Korea to find out what was going on. There were no immigration windows like in normal times. Everything instead was a makeshift affair with long Formica tables, two set up together, then two more and two more and two more. We all went through the same search and questioning procedure four different times. Why the first time wasn’t good enough was beyond me, but I knew better than to ask questions. They were opening cigarette packs and looking through the cigarettes to see if there was anything coming in that shouldn’t be – anything related to espionage, for example. The Korean customs officials were examining documents (such as my letters of credit) in English that they couldn’t even read, and they were obviously under heavy pressure, knowing they could suddenly end up dead if they made a mistake. Punishment came swiftly in Korea.
At the first station the senior-looking guy took my passport and asked questions in broken English: what are you doing here, “what do you know, who are you going to see, why is it necessary for you to come now?” No matter how good your answers were, you got a very nervous reaction because the officer’s English was limited, and he didn’t know what he was looking for. He was also checking the passengers’ names off against a list. It could have been as innocent as a flight log, or it could have been a list of people to watch out for. Meanwhile, his partner went through everything in my bag, opening the can of talcum powder, squeezing the toothpaste. They were seizing cameras—of course writing down the serial numbers. If you had one, you didn’t get it back until you exited the terminal. Then I was herded over to another table, where they seemed to have a different list. At table two I was frisked. At table three they took my coat off and took it into a room and then brought it back. They were very serious about anything electronic—a tape recorder, anything like that. If you had a tape in there, they were playing it and fooling with the buttons, very paranoid about what the outside world was finding out and what they knew.
Several times a day four military men would unlock my room at the Lotte Hotel with a passkey and suddenly burst in with their machine guns, shouting, “room check.” They were so rude. They’d go through my luggage. They’d go through my notebook. They’d go through my wallet. They’d ask questions. “What’s this a picture of? Where did you get this picture?” Maybe it’s a family photo under the Christmas tree. “What is this a photo of and when was it taken? What country? Why did you bring it here?” The favorite question was “How many foreign cigarettes do you have? Where did you get them? Let me check.” And they’d check for the duty-free stamps showing where they originated from. They wanted to make sure there were no hookers, no North Korean spies, no Koreans of any kind in the room because they didn’t want secret meetings that couldn’t be monitored. If a Korean businessman was in a foreigner’s room smoking Marlboros, that guy was going to jail for possessing contraband at the very least unless he had a lot of money to purchase the military policeman’s “good will.” They wanted everything under open sky. That’s why coffee shop in the Lotte Hotel seemed at the time like something out of Casablanca, providing a perfect forum for the spy vs. spy thing that was going on. It was all so silly, because no foreigner coming to Korea had any information that could have changed anything. We didn’t know how many U.S. troops were amassed on the border and what they would do in the event of an invasion from the North. People were constantly asking foreigners, if x-number of American soldiers were killed in one week, would the U.S. abandon its defense of South Korea and leave Korea to its fate. We had no answers, but people were curious and constantly asking the same question nonetheless.
So we had martial law, and we had machine guns in the streets, and we had curfew. I was across the street from the Lotte Department Store in Myoung-dong listening to bad Korean folk music and drinking awful instant coffee. Curfew was 8:30PM. I left the coffee shop and was walking across the street to the Lotte Hotel when a military policeman stopped me, pointed to his watch and explained that it was 8:31; I had violated curfew and I couldn’t cross the street to go to my hotel. He was not budging, and it was too public for me to purchase an ounce of his goodwill so he just said, “Go back.” Go back? The coffee shop wasn’t going to let me stay overnight. I figured that the policeman wasn’t going to take me to jail because that would take him away from his post. He was just going to get me to find a place in Myoung-dong. I ended up staying at a three-dollar-a-night Korean yŏgwan, sleeping on the floor, until sunrise when I could walk across the street to my $150-a-night hotel. It was a very pleasant diversion as I recall it now.
The military police were really running the country. They were the authority in Korea and the KCIA helped. The military had total impunity to act in any way it deemed necessary with foreigners. They were everywhere. Everything was screened. Every call was monitored, every telex was intercepted and then retransmitted. I was constantly trying to figure out what they were doing, but they didn’t really seem to know what they were doing, It was a very unprofessional screening job because there was a lot of duplication in it. They just seemed uncertain and nervous. For military people, they seemed frightened too and they had machine guns. As a matter of fact, on the streets in front of the brand-new Lotte Hotel, there was very little traffic, but everywhere there were soldiers. There was a soldier within eyesight of another soldier throughout the city. Soldiers with a machine gun, stopping people, checking papers, asking questions at random. “Where are you going, what are you doing, what’s your business here? Show me your passport.” And they were stopping Korean citizens too. Even before the assassination, all the windows facing north were shuttered or painted black—all windows in all of the buildings. Korea was in a state of permanent blackout, facing north so the North Koreans could not observe their development or their activity and to make targets more difficult to spot if the North Koreans were to invade the South. From the first day I arrived here for several years.
The building our bank’s representative office was in was new, but to save precious heating oil the temperature was kept just high enough so the pipes wouldn’t freeze. It was so cold you could see your breath. I remember having to take my gloves off to sign checks and vouchers. I met with people from Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo—Korean companies which are now giants—which were then very small and very risky companies to lend money to. They were assembled on a shoestring budget, and their staff was living pretty much hand to mouth. They didn’t have presentable offices, so they would meet us at the Lotte Hotel in the coffee shop. That was where you did business in Korea. People would wait in line for tables. It was just round-robin marathon of meetings with the Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo people. Foreign cigarettes opened doors. It was illegal for Koreans to smoke foreign cigarettes or to own foreign cigarettes because Korea was desperately trying to keep all the foreign exchange in the country. It didn’t want to be importing things and sending dollars overseas because the country was desperately short of capital. So you’d be having a meeting with bankers or businessmen in Korea, and you’d give them a cigarette and they would be very grateful for it, and if they lit it and smoked it then, they would hide it under the table because the military police were everywhere, and they would go into a restaurant and look, trying to catch a Korean smoking a foreign cigarette because the fine, payable in cash, on the spot, was about a ten dollars—a month’s wages in those days, which led to a lengthy negotiation for a discounted bribe.
Koreans were hungry for news of the outside because news was heavily censored. Our office had to get case by case written permissions to receive foreign publications like The Wall Street Journal. The government employed professional readers and redactors who would cut things out, and the paper would look like confetti by the time you it on some days. I recall a 64-page Time Magazine our office received. It had eight pages remaining by the time the redactors were finished. You knew a lot was going on behind the scenes in Korea when most of the articles were cut out of the paper. And then you’d be on the phone trying to talk in code because there were listeners on every phone call you made overseas. All the lines overseas went through government offices, and every overseas call was recorded and monitored. Korea was so paranoid. They were afraid of infiltration. They were afraid of an invasion from the north. They were so afraid of an inability to control people’s hearts and minds, afraid of losing control of the public will, that they monitored everything very, very carefully, and they were quick to take action if they sensed you were being too American or too British or too French.
In those days telex information from the Japanese office was almost instantaneous with our offices in Manila and Hong Kong and Singapore. We could talk live. I was a fast typist, and often we would have conversations over the telex because it was cheaper than calling. Yet when we got a telex from Korea at the Tokyo branch it was three or four hours old. On days when there was a lot of news that Korea was sensitive to—news about China or about Russia—there were telexes which people couldn’t understand. Of course a lot of our telexes from Japan to Korea were written in jargon that only our American representative would understand because we wanted to convey information that the bank needed, but if the telex got too obtuse on a day when there was a lot of scary information going back and forth, the telex wouldn’t arrive at all. We were transferring money through Korea’s central bank by telex. We were also transmitting a lot of information, but it was interesting. The thought police, the Korean Intelligence Agency, came to visit our branch and question us almost weekly, but they never acknowledged that they were intercepting our telexes and reading things, asking questions like what would an American mean if he said this or that. Even our telephones had keyword cut-offs. If you mentioned North Korea—click—your phone went dead. Other words or phrases were also unacceptable. They would threaten to cut off your phone entirely if you abused it. You get an arrogant American or an arrogant Frenchman saying, “Nobody’s going to tell me what I can say,” and they’d find themselves without a phone and the president of their bank would have to come out to Korea apologize in person and get the telephone reconnected. People learned to behave pretty quickly.