Archive for October, 2011

Looking Back, Part 3

by on Saturday, October 29th, 2011

[Above diagram: Layout of the first floor of the KCIA building, showing where the bodies were found: 1) Park Chung-hee, 2) his bodyguard Cha Ji Chui, and 3-7) other bodyguards.]

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). Looking Back, Part 2 contains links to the Youtube version of the movie as well as several other links to texts and videos of the period. For an excellent Korean history, see Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun. For a quick look at the period on this webside, try A Priest’s View of Human Rights in Korea <(>

The following conversation with my friend Frank took place in 2007.

Frank’s story

When I came here in 1970, there was all kinds of martial law stuff going on and police stuff. Korean police were like stopping Korean boys with long hair and dragging them off and cutting out hunks of their hair [like just on one side so they’d have to go to a barber to get a haircut to even it out]. They were arresting people for long hair and so forth. Of course, I had come through the Boston sort of hippie era, and I was outraged by it. Now I had a job at The Korea Herald, proofreading and writing headlines. I worked with these two older foreigners. One of them was an ex-military guy, and the other had left the priesthood and gotten married. They were both nice enough guys, but I was having these big arguments with them at work. “They’d say, “Aw, Frank, these are Korean kids. They don’t need long hair.” I’m pretty sure that even in the ‘70s and even in the ‘80s there were street thugs and scummy sorts of people that were attached to the police.

I had a beard when I was a professor in Tokyo. I came here with a Japanese-American who had really long, straight, jet-black hair. We were traveling around the country, hitch-hiking out in the middle of nowhere. This black military jeep came along, slammed on the brakes, and these two thugs in leather jackets—they were obviously official sort of guys—jumped out of the jeep and started manhandling my friend, grabbing him and yelling at him. I couldn’t understand the Korean, but I was trying to get between them. I said, “He’s an American. He’s an American.” Finally I got through.

The main attacker stepped back and said “American?”

I said, “Show him your passport.”

So Rod pulled out an American passport, and these guys started laughing and apologized. They said, “Where are you going? We’re going this way.” With a little bit of trepidation I got into the jeep.

Those were crazy times. I think people were just really afraid to talk. South Korea was a real police state. For example, at the U.S. Osan Air Base [located near Songtan, Korea], there was a Korean guy who worked at the education center as an administrator. He’d go to the public bath over the weekend. Apparently—or the story was that he had said—while bathing—that Pres. Park should step down. He was locked up for a couple of months for making a comment like that. I used to watch out in restaurants and bars when people would start saying “Taehan Minguk” [Daehanminguk in the revised romanization, the ethnic-nationalistic slogan for Korean land and people]. It was always some drunk right-winger I wanted to steer clear of.

One of my in-laws worked in the legal system. Sometimes I would make critical comments about Park, but even within the family he would never say anything critical. But at a family gathering after Park was shot, I said, “After all Park’s done for the [economic development of the] country, it was a shame he was shot down like a dog.” This in-law said, “How many people did he kill?” It was a complete 180-degree turnaround.

Every office had a picture of Park on the wall. A priest I knew, a foreigner, used to get drunk and go into the police box when he was drunk and point to the picture of Pres. Park and call him an asshole and saying what a jerk he was and the police would just laugh and say, “Go home. Go to bed. You’re drunk.”

It’s amazing today. I don’t know if you ever noticed, but out near out near Songnam, before Bundang, there’s a Korean air base—Seoul Air Base. The U.S. Army has helicopters out there, too, but the bases are kind of separated. I’m out there sometimes. That’s where the Korean presidents and dignitaries fly in, as well as Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush. Whenever an important person is coming in, there is a Korean Secret Service guy and a policeman at every street or alleyway, any road that would have access to the road that the motorcade is going to be on. This is for miles and miles. They have police downtown, right through the tunnel, down across the bridge route, blocking traffic for two or three minutes before the dignitary arrives. They time all the lights so that the traffic never stops. The driver can just drive straight through, and it’s so well timed with the police in walkie-talkie communication along the way blocking off the traffic. So the traffic hardly changes from its usual routine.

At Osan Air Base, there’s a big overpass that goes to the base. I remember once in the Park Chung-hee era I was driving on the overpass, and suddenly these ajǒssis [middle-aged Korean men] and paramilitary guards stopped me. They were all blowing their whistles and waving their arms. So they pulled me over, “Get out of the car! Down the stairs! Down the stairs! Down the stairs!” Next to the sidewalk on one side of the overpass there was a concrete stairwell. I walked down about halfway down thirty to fifty stairs, and they blew the whistle at me and said, “Come on back up.” So I got up to the top of the stairs, and I said, “Number one?” and held up my index finger. They laughed, and they said, “Number one.” Park had just driven by.

I mean, it took the CIA chief to kill Park Chung-hee. There were only maybe two or three people that were close enough, and even then they had to have some luck. If I remember correctly, a pistol was put in the bathroom, and during a drinking party, the CIA chief went in there to take a whiz and came back with the pistol and shot him.

Korea is still a place for rumors. But back in 1974 when Pres. Park’s wife was shot, there was a rumor that he had her shot, that he was tired of her. [The rumor is not surprising because Park was in the National Theater giving a speech, and the gunman fired several shots from the back row, wounding Park’s wife, Yuk Young-soo, and another person. Park continued to speak while his dying wife was carried off the stage.] After the KCIA chief, Kim Jae-kyu, shot Park, there was a rumor that they’d executed somebody else and that Kim was running a grocery store in Minneapolis. In a police state anything was possible. There was no freedom of information, so any rumor was considered more plausible than a reported account.

Another interesting story was that the martial law commander before Chun Doo-hwan, a general several years older and senior to Chun, was arrested for complicity in the Park assassination. I think probably that was how the coup was staged. As martial law commander, he was up on the side of the Namsan, down in Hannam-dong. There’s a bunker up there in the woods [and buildings where dissidents were tortured]. Soldiers loyal to Chun or Rho Tae-woo went up there and surrounded it. One or two guards were killed. They arrested him, claiming that he had met with the Kim Jae-kyu before Park was shot. They framed him so that Chun could take over as martial law commander, which enabled him to seize power. Later it was shown to be all completely nonsense, and the general was exonerated, his name cleared and so forth.

When he was arrested, my wife was down on the bridge down in Hannam-dong, and she heard the gunshots up on the hillside. All the traffic was paralyzed. She was in a cab, and she got out and walked across the bridge. I guess that would have been directly before. The Kwangju demonstrations were in reaction to Chun’s illegal seizure of power. Chun responded by launching the suppression and massacre down there.

In 1970 there were only one or two bridges over the Han River. There wasn’t one in Hannam-dong, for example. Where the highway now crosses the Hannam Bridge there was just a dirt road down by the river. I remember getting directions to somewhere in Seoul, which is now filled with highrises, and hearing. “You can’t miss it. It’s the only 5-story building around. They didn’t mean it was the smallest. They meant that it was the biggest.

Seoul's Banpo Briidge and apartment blocks south of the Han River in 2007

I think it was about ‘73 or ‘74, when the first high-rise apartments went up in Youi-do. A friend of mine moved there to a place along the Han River. We went to a party at his place on the seventh or eighth floor, and we were just amazed. The thousands and thousands of apartment blocks started springing up in the mid to late ‘70s. South of the river was just pear trees. Yangjye [at the southern end of Seoul], which is now one of the biggest real estate areas in Seoul. But back then my wife and I rode a bus out in the countryside, a country bus, all through the rice fields to Yangjye. It was called Malchiguri, that means “horse” something-or-other.” I wanted to live there and commute into Seoul, but she didn’t want to live out there because it smelled of manure and it was just so country. She said, “No way I’m going to live here.”

In ‘79-80 there were a lot of hakwons [usually for-profit cram schools]. In ‘71 or ‘72, I was lost staying in a temple in Incheon. I went down to the waterfront and got lost. A woman took me in for the night. There was a story that she’d been seduced by a priest, gotten pregnant and had a child. She was a little crazy. But she ran an institute for half-Korean kids who wanted to get to the States or be adopted. I taught there for a while, and then later when I was traveling through and I got a job teaching English around Osan.

Looking Back, Part 2

by on Friday, October 14th, 2011

For this post I’ve added video links and links to older posts in order to give readers a fuller picture of what Korea was like before and after Park Chung-hee’s assassination in 1979. –Scene of Yushin Era in South Korea (English, pro-American)–Park Chung hee’s coup in 1961 (Korean) –Park Chung hee assassination (Korean)–The President’s Last Bang, part 1 of 11. (Korean with English subtitles)–State Funeral (no narration, video with music)–State Funeral of South Korea (Korean narration, end the same as above, good video)–Movie “A Single Spark,” about the labor martyr Chun Tae-il. English subtitles. 1 of 12.

From this website:  A Priest’s View of Human Rights in Korea(, Working with Women Workers (, A Skeptic’s View of the Korean Student Movement (

Kimchi pots outside a traditional house

Michael is an Irish Catholic priest with many years serving in South Korea. This is from an interview in 2007.

Michael’s story

The night Park Chung-hee was shot [October 27, 1979], I was at a party at Konguk University, where an ex-Peace Corps guy was celebrating his birthday. I took some English students to meet the foreigners and speak a bit of English. A friend was visiting from England, looking into setting up a program for justice awareness, and after the party we stayed up talking about injustice in Korea and the Philippines. In the morning I was taking a shower when he rushed in and said that Park Chunhee had been shot just as we were coming home from the party. I thought he was joking. I got dressed and went out. Everything was quiet. In those days whenever an incident happened, people passed out free, quarter-page sheets bulletins from news agencies. The news was just that he was shot. Curfew was moved from midnight to an earlier time.

At that time I was running a center for Catholic students, a place for them to come together, where they could do debates and discuss literature or whatever. Across the street was a station for the police and the KCIA. One of these guardian angels, a Mr. Hong, was watching to see who came and went. About a week before he’d come over because of a flyer on the wall about an educational event on secular developments in Europe. One of the students had told him it had to do with communism. Just saying the word “communism” made you a red at that time, and informing on others was quite common. I’d had to go over to the police station and explain myself. On the morning after Park was shot I saw Mr. Hong a few other guys on the street, and they looked at the ground. They were ashamed that Park was shot by the KCIA chief. I shouldn’t have done it, but I said, “You guys were accusing me of communism, but we didn’t shoot the president, and there were no troops coming over the border. It was your guy that shot the president.” After the assassination everybody was very quiet, and the KCIA didn’t come around the center. Because of the curfew everybody was afraid. The news came out slowly how he was shot and all of that.

Before the funeral a friend and I went down to the south to Naedamsa to see the fall leaves. On the way back there were very few cars on the road, and those cars were all being pulled in by the police. It was kind of a free-for-all for the police to accuse drivers of speeding. I’m sure they were lining their own pockets because the king was dead and they could do whatever they wanted.

We watched the funeral on television. A motorcade and the coffin with a whole carriage all made up of yellow and white flowers. It was a beautiful sight, and the daughters and the sons and the officials were all in mourning clothes. It was very solemn. Whether people were for Park Chung-hee or against him, they had a lot of sadness about his being shot that way.

All along we’d been told that the North Korean communists were going to come down and shoot the president. And now there was a lot of fear. What was going on? Then in the election Pres. Chae was chosen, but he only lasted a short time. Then there was the coup of December 12 when Chung Doo-hwan took over. I remember being over at the center a few nights before, around curfew time. There was me and a New Zealander. We heard this rumble like a whole movement of army trucks moving. We ran to out a small little window that onto the main road, the one that went across the bridge. It looked like the whole army.

Seoul apartment blocks in 1975


I first came here in September, 1969. I was amazed by the throngs of people on the road and everywhere. Seoul was still undeveloped. There was a lot of poverty, a lot of old Korean houses with tile roofs, which later on were preserved as a kind of national treasure. In the countryside at the time there were mainly thatched cottages with no indoor plumbing, and some of the rural areas didn’t even have electricity. There were some paved roads, but especially up in the mountains there were still very few. The roads were set up by the army, part clay and part gravel, so they could get around in their black jeeps. The few private cars were mostly in Seoul. You could see lots of punctured tires on jeeps and cars and buses.

The electric trams had just gone out before I came here, but there was good bus service, with a conductress at each of the front and back doors. They took the fare as you got in and hit the side of the bus to tell the driver it was time to leave, and then they’d announce the station. When the bus was really crowded they had to turn their back to the crowd, take hold of the barriers and push the people in with their behinds. In 1974-75 the girls who worked on the buses had demonstrations—they had no unions. They were protesting against being strip-searched at the end of the line by men. At his Christmas mass, the Bishop at Wonju [who went to jail for protesting against Park Chung-hee’s declaring himself President for Life] said if they are stealing money there was nothing sinful about that, they were just taking what they should be getting anyway.

Yushin Constitution in 1971 [Revitalizing Reform Movement] brought in the Saemaul, or New Village, with in much needed cleanliness, getting rid of the dirt and squalor in back alleys, having people take responsibility for cleaning up around their houses. There was a big push to get rid of a lot of old things, and a lot of good houses probably were destroyed. Yushin was also about saemaum, or New Heart, New Attitude. It was tied up with politics and control and the old Confucian respect for elders. In reality it did a lot of good.

In ’69 when I came, Seoul was mostly one and two-story buildings. In the back alleys there were open sewers, especially the outskirts where poor people lived. It was all squatters’ area. People who had failed in the city and were in debt, they moved out to those places. No running water, living in boxes in the summertime. Then people were moved out of the poor areas, probably just loaded on the back of trucks and taken further out of the city. By 1979 saemaul would have replaced the thatched houses within the official inner city with houses of concrete block, but probably not out in the outskirts where squatters lived. After the reforms they’d put a metal roof, but that can be really hot in the summer and cold in the winter. So they’d keep the thatch and put that on top of it.

In the early ‘70s, there was a big market in textile production. The sweatshops were keeping wages down in order to produce as much as they could and send their products to and Hong Kong. There was an organization for young Catholic workers which had branches in the factories, and we would celebrate mass at a table in the middle of the factory floor. There were at least three, if not four platforms stacked on top of each other, where the girls sat cross-legged in front of their machines. The idea was to get as many girls as possible and as many machines as possible into a small space. At first one of the big issues the girls were fighting for was one day a month, and then much later they got one day a week off. Of course, the factories and those sweatshops had all kinds of goons working for them. The girls were protesting about being beaten or raped—threatened at least. If you complained about anything, you were branded a communist. Nobody wanted that, but at the same time you had to fight for your rights. With the textiles there was a lot of dyeing. When I was mountain climbing, I’d see dye coming down all the streams—blue, and pink or purple with the overflow from the factories.

Working conditions were bad, in crowded rooms with bad air. There was a lot of tuberculosis. Girls had problems with their eyesight from being on the sewing machines for a long time. I know because we ran a night school which started in 1975, with girls from the factories or guys who worked in these fitting shops. In the late ‘70s they started demonstrating. If they’d sit down or go slow work or no work, the factory with the help of the government would send in the goons. In a few incidents these goons brought in buckets of shit and threw it on top of them. The demonstrators were sent to jail for a while. [See “A Single Spark,” link above.]

In the center for Catholic university students, we organized a night school for kids up from the countryside who had no middle school education. They came after work, at 6:30 p.m., for a year and a half to do middle school education, Korean and math and English and history. School finished at 10:30. There were very dedicated university students teaching the program. Some volunteered extra time to help those who were slow. It was a model school in some ways. As the school got very strong, we had up to 40 students. A lot of them had to drop out, but we had a graduation celebration in the countryside with own school song. Some of our students went on to the university after that and became teachers in the school. That went on beyond ’79 and into the ‘80s. Then after ’82 teachers were coming in who wanted to focus on the class struggle, democracy, change and labor laws. We had a big struggle among ourselves. One teacher said, “These students want to go on to high school or the university. That’s what we’re here for.” By 1986 enrollment was way down. There were maybe 15 teachers and 4 or 5 students. So the school was closed.

In the 70s there was a photocopy machine in every church. The political activists would copy their book of rallying songs with Catholic hymns. Farmers’ bands were banned. [For a look at a farmer’s band, see part 1 of “A Single Spark.] They used to have them at festivals. They took harvest stories and used them to make modern day plays with masks representing the factory owner and the workers and all that. They’d practice and put it on in front of Myoung-dong Cathedral, but then it got so widespread that the government stopped it.

After the Kwangju Incident in 1980 [see “A Priest Talks about Human Rights”], students found out that they alone could not take on the government. A lot of them started to go into the factories to create awareness. You could say that was part of the reason the Kwangju Incident started. So now the university students wanted to take over everywhere, including the churches. A Korean priest took over the center and closed the whole office. Movement decisions were made outside, like where there was going to be demonstrations and what the issues would be this month and next month. Of course phones were tapped, and there were KCIA informants everywhere.

I lived for nearly two years on an island off the south coast where there was no phone, no electricity, no roads. The boat took over seven hours, stopping at all the other islands. Especially in the summertime they’d be crowded, people getting seasick, carrying chickens and things like that. It was one of the beautiful spots in Korea, but I watched a lot of people perish out there. Sometimes the skin scabs would break out from malnutrition. We were doing relief. Yellow cornmeal came in from American agencies. People were hungry so they had no choice but to eat it, although some people exchanged the cornmeal for rice. We ran a kitchen as part of our middle school, and we gave the kids a hot lunch. Although we were living on an island, it was the hardest place in the world to find fish. Any fish that was caught was exported directly to Japan. Very few of the people could afford to buy it themselves.

Many of the mountains around were bare after the Korean War. After 1968, every May the big thing was to go out and plant trees, green belts around the cities. About 1968 or so the troops came from the North trying to assassinate Park Chung-hee. So places around Seoul were out of bounds, and army camps were brought in. That preserved the trees because people were stopped from cutting them. In the wintertime the women went down and collected the pine needles, and carried on their heads big loads of pine needles, which they made into bales and used as firewood. Collecting branches was allowed, but you were liable to be accused of cutting trees and fined if somebody needed a bit of money. In the countryside you’d see smoke coming up from the houses for the evening meal. The fuel was either straw or pine needles.

The army ruled the roost. I remember having an argument with them, hot-blooded Irish that I am. In the summertime I used to go out with the students to work in the countryside with the farmers. Afterwards we’d go to the seaside for a few days. Once we were staying in a hostel with a courtyard, and the students wanted to have a campfire. The army said they couldn’t. So the students argued back and cajoled, and finally they were told,

“OK, build a campfire, light it, take a photograph and then put it out immediately.”


“Well, the North Korean boats will see it.”

We were inside a square building with only a small door coming into it. This was completely illogical. It was all about control, really, and a lot of it was done by young soldiers out of envy and jealousy for university students who were enjoying themselves.

The beaches were barricaded off by wires and guarded by soldiers, but some of them were opened up in the summertime. The students used to go there with tents and music. One night I was there with a group of students, and a soldier came in and turned off the music with no explanation. One of the students said, “He’s on guard duty, so how dare we enjoy ourselves.”

Another time there was a school sports competition, and on the third day in there were army trucks set in position all around the playing field. They were going to be there for two weeks for army maneuvers. Nobody apologized. The soldiers were the same age as our students. They put a truck on the basketball court, and they were driving onto the soccer goal area. We asked if they could wait just five minutes, but of course the guy wouldn’t move the truck off the soccer field. It was a strange game trying to move around a truck to score a goal. The army wouldn’t give an inch.